Despite La bohème‘s subject matter having as much to do with Christmas as The Nutcracker it does not enjoy a festive spot at the Royal Opera House with anything like the same frequency. John Copley’s classic production has been going strong since 1974, although its revivals, of which this is the twenty-sixth, can come in waves, with periods where they feel tired alternating with those of apparent renewal.
Watching it now, the first irony is that while last April Copley’s creation did seem to have a spring in its step, now that it enjoys the right time of year for its first two acts, it is showing its age once more. Not that I would support the production, with its emphasis on humanity but touch of magic, being replaced. Though the Café Momus scene may lack the freshness that now makes its exuberance feel laboured and formulaic, the greater amazement is that it still stands as strong as it does. It makes one wonder just how revolutionary it would have felt in the mid-70s amidst (I suspect) a considerable number of ‘park and bark’ productions.
The second irony is that, while there are many things in this cast’s favour, it may be they who help to make the production feel dated. As Rodolfo, Rolando Villazón is exceptionally strong in Acts I and II, producing some soaring sounds while mixing it a little with some interesting nuances. His gestures are flamboyant yet precise. In his opening with Marcello, it seems that his sure command of the role is enabling him to enjoy putting on such a visually dynamic and entertaining performance. If less frenetic, he remains highly expressive throughout ‘Che gelida manina’, before naturally becoming more passive, though no less engaging, as he listens to ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’.
Maija Kovalevska is an excellent Mimì, producing a clean sound that is nonetheless bedecked with a vibrant resonance, almost regardless of the pitch she is singing at. The only time she seems to lose this edge to her voice is when she really is at full throttle, at which point the sheer visceral thrill generated is enough to compensate. Audun Iversen proves impressive as Marcello, his rich baritone voice producing a sound of great strength and evenness, while David Bižić is a suitably wry Schaunard. As Colline, Nahuel di Pierro’s performance of ‘Vecchia zimarra’ is aided by a pleasing grain to the voice, meaning that both he and Bižić make commendable Royal Opera debuts.
Stefania Dovhan, also making her Royal Opera House debut, helps us to believe in both Musetta’s vivacious sense of expectancy, and compassionate selflessness. Her performance of ‘Quando me’n vo’ soon takes flight, and her all encompassing phrasing is complemented by a strong ensemble dynamic as the jealousies of Marcello and Alcindoro (Donald Maxwell) are aroused to the point where all of the characters at Momus become involved in the spectacle.
Act III is where things go slightly wrong. One senses Villazón has pushed his voice too hard, leading him (on opening night at least) to duck a few high notes and leave others underpowered. The greater problem, however, is that this is one scene where his and Kovalevska’s actions feel too large and dramatic to capture that sense of hopeless destitution in the depths of winter. Their acting would be fine in a concert performance where all eyes could focus on them, but their performances feel out of step with the set, severely exceeding the parameters that it has created. Interestingly, it is Musetta’s scuffle with Marcello that reins the action back in to fit its snowy surroundings once more.
Sir Mark Elder conducts with a precision that enables the various hues in Puccini’s enigmatic score to come to the fore, although sometimes his meticulous approach, though far from passionless, is to the detriment of capturing the sweeping nature of the music. This is a classic production with a sterling cast, but it can feel as if the two entities are not entirely suited to each other. Nevertheless, the emotive ending remains hard to fault, and the other casts performing later in run may bring about a very different experience.
Two casts will perform La bohème over the coming months. Cast A (described above) will perform between 17 December 2012 and 18 January 2013; Cast B will perform from 16 February to 12 March 2013 with conductor Alexander Joel. For further details, including additional changes to certain roles, visit the Royal Opera House website.
The Royal Opera House’s La bohème will be broadcast into cinemas worldwide on 15 January 2013. For further details visit the Royal Opera House’s live screenings website.