It is fairly common to shed a tear or two at the end of La bohème, but for this run half of the audience may be inclined to do so before the curtain has even risen. This is because the Royal Opera House is currently staging the final revival of John Copley’s now 41-year old production, which for many a London opera-goer has been something of a constant in an ever changing world.
It is probably the right time for the Royal Opera to abandon this mainstay of its repertoire (a new production by Richard Jones is in the pipeline), but only because it is best to do so while the staging can still hold its head high. There may be a few moments when it feels as if it is starting to creak under the weight of its own sturdy sets, but as this final revival proves it remains as strong a vehicle as ever to showcase both the singing and acting talents of the cast. When the performers are as good as the ones on offer here the results can be very special.
There is a tension in La bohème between Puccini’s ethereal score and the story it tells of imperfect and fragile human lives. The dilemma this presents radiates out to the individual performers for achieving the perfect tone and sound in ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ can be at odds with conveying the required senses of poverty and vulnerability. The higher the calibre of the cast, the greater the challenge can be because a superlative vocal performance is simply expected, but in this instance Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo and Anna Netrebko as Mimì marry the two elements very successfully.
Netrebko is the undoubted star of the evening with her soaring top line and intriguingly strong middle register. If, however, her voice is on the loud side, she still suggests the requisite fragility by shaping her sound so skilfully and giving much thought to her acting. When she first appears she genuinely seems flustered and anxious, and gives the impression of blurting out lines without, in reality, ever sacrificing rhythmic detail. She interacts well with Calleja during ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ while still enabling the aria to shine as a solo. She does this by spending some time apart from him to stare outwards, while maintaining character through clasped hands and glances towards him.
Calleja, initially at least, plays on the idea of Rodolfo as a carefree Bohemian, which enables him to loosen up vocally while remaining entirely in character. His voice is expansive in tone, while his middle register is particularly fine. If on opening night there was the occasional sign of strain in the upper range, it hardly mattered and never undermined the overall standard of his performance.
The iconic Café Momus scene shines as brightly as it ever did, and on this occasion benefits from a splendid performance from Jennifer Rowley, making her Royal Opera debut as Musetta. She does not just reveal a sense of expectancy in the way that she treats Alcindoro and Marcello, but positively tests the limits to which she can push them as she smashes plates, hurls chalk and sprinkles salt and pepper over them. Her ‘Quando me’n vo’ reveals such a full, rounded soprano voice that it feels less abrasive than in many performances.
Lucas Meachem is an outstanding Marcello, never putting a foot wrong as he asserts his rich and powerful baritone, and the benefits of having such a strong central quartet really come to the fore in Act III. We can fully appreciate the differences between the relationships of Rodolfo and Mimì, and Marcello and Musetta (one spiritual, perfect but transitory, the other earthly, turbulent but lasting), while feeling some sense of over-arching unity as well. It is so easy for the two couples to exist on such different planes that they simply do not form a coherent quartet on stage, but that is not a trap fallen into here.Simone Del Savio is an exemplary Schaunard and Marco Vinco a very fine Colline, singing ‘Vecchia zimarra’ leant despondently on a table and providing excellent alteration of sound on ‘Passâr nelle tue tasche’. Dan Ettinger conducts with a pleasing combination of passion and delicacy, doing full justice to the sweeping nature of Puccini’s enigmatic score, while also paying sufficient attention to its intricacies and details.
Excepting the sheer volume of applause, the only difference to a normal curtain call on opening night was that Jeremy White (a peerless Benoît) and Ryland Davies (a superb Alcindoro) took their bows in addition to the main six, which does not normally happen. The speeches and presentations may well be saved until the final performance on 16 July, and a trip to La bohème between now and then comes highly recommended. This is not only because everyone should experience – or in most cases re-experience – this production before it is finally laid to rest, but because the performances on this occasion genuinely merit the journey.
Two casts perform over this current run of La bohème. Cast A (described above) conducted by Dan Ettinger perform between 23 May and 10 June and cast B conducted by Alexander Joel (and Plácido Domingo for the final performance on 16 July) between 9 and 16 July. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.