A firm favourite with Royal Opera audiences, John Copley’s production of La bohème is now forty years old, although it will not be around for much longer. Following a final revival next year, the production is to be removed from the Royal Opera’s repertoire (although the sets will be put in storage rather than broken up) and there are already plans for a new staging by Richard Jones.
It is probably the right time for the Royal Opera to abandon this mainstay of its repertoire; any major opera house can find that its better productions can be its older ones because, being so successful, they then stay around for longer. If they never had the courage to replace a classic production that was still bringing in the crowds, they would risk stagnating as they accumulated a wealth of old takes on key works.
If, however, Copley’s production is now at a point where it is starting to creak under the weight of its own sturdy sets, the greater amazement is that it still stands as strong as it does. It makes one wonder just how revolutionary, for example, the dynamic Café Momus scene would have felt in 1974 amidst (I suspect) a considerable number of ‘park and bark’ productions. Every opera-goer really ought to experience, or in most cases re-experience, this work before it is finally laid to rest, and based on the performance of Cast A in the current run, I see no reason to wait another year before doing so.
If the production itself seems just a little tired, the performances feel anything but. There is a fresh- feeling ensemble dynamic to Act I from a quartet of men who have clearly thought about their characters, and worked closely with Copley (this run isn’t given over to a revival director) to bring these out through their interactions. There is, of course, a tension in La bohème between Puccini’s ethereal score and the story it tells of imperfect and fragile human lives. It is the task of a production to marry these two highly disparate elements so that mundane, and in real life annoying, events such as losing one’s key possess an air of the spiritual. In this instance, Cornelius Meister’s conducting also plays an important role in doing so. For example, though in reality the youths are exposing Benoît’s tawdry ways, the burst of power from the orchestra hands the moment in which they do so such monumentality that the discovery feels more like divine revelation.
When Mimì (Ermonela Jaho) appears, the relationship between her and Rodolfo (Charles Castronovo) is rendered slightly more traditionally than in some productions. For example, in 2010 at the London Coliseum Elizabeth Llewellyn seemed so tuned in to every sentence of Rodolfo’s deception that Mimì came across as the one in control, but here Jaho is filled with that sense of innocent infatuation. In ‘Che gelida manina’ Castronovo’s romantic tenor voice possesses so much smoothness that this acts as an excellent base from which to attack the aria full throttle. One senses that both performers are really pushing themselves to the limit, which proves thrilling to witness, and dramatically they are highly convincing. I have seen some very good singers come across as too large and expressive to capture that sense of hopeless destitution in the depths of winter, but here Castronovo and Jaho fit Act III’s snowy surroundings perfectly.
Act II at Café Momus does not thrill quite as much as it once did, but it is certainly kept strong by some excellent performances, not least from both the Royal Opera and Tiffin Children’s Chorus. It also reminds us of the production’s intelligence, for at one point we have sitting from left to right Alcindoro, Musetta, Marcello, Rodolfo and Mimì, only it never occurs to us that they are arranged in a line at all. This enables Musetta to be positioned between her two would-be lovers and play them off against each other, and also provides us with a clear contrast between the relationships of Marcello and Musetta and Rodolfo and Mimì. When Rodolfo gazes on the other couple, and tells Mimì that he would not keep forgiving her forever, we are reminded of the terrible realities of the situation. While Marcello and Musetta have a turbulent relationship, but one that should ultimately enjoy longevity, Rodolfo and Mimì have achieved perfection but it will be all too fleeting.
For my liking Simona Mihai’s voice is a little too abrasive (for Puccini’s music rather than the actual character of Musetta), but this is a matter of personal taste, and her presence is undoubtedly striking. She takes the stage by storm in ‘Quando me’n vo’, but ultimately enables us to believe in both Musetta’s vivacious sense of expectancy, and compassionate selflessness. Markus Werba is pleasing as Marcello, while Daniel Grice proves a very fine actor as Schaunard. Jongmin Park also stands out with his brilliantly firm and nuanced bass, and his deeply moving performance of ‘Vecchia zimarra’ provides the perfect introduction to those final few heart-wrenching minutes of the opera. The ending to La bohème gets you every time, but on this occasion it did so even more than usual.
Casts vary over the run. In particular Vittorio Grigolo will sing Rodolfo and Angela Gheorghiu Mimì on 12, 15 and 19 (evening performance) July. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.
La bohème will be relayed live on BP Summer Big Screens around the country on 15 July. For details of venues click here.