As energy prices rise we all might have to take a leaf out of these Bohemians’ books.
A darkened stage, snow gently fluttering down from the flies. It can only mean one thing – we’re back at Covent Garden for another helping, or two in this case, of Richard Jones’ staging of Puccini’s evergreen masterpiece. Back for its fourth revival since 2017, having replaced John Copley’s dreary staging that filled the company’s coffers for more than 40 years, in revival director Danielle Urbas’ hands it came up freshly minted. True, some still hanker over the previous version, but given the healthy houses for both these performances, and the enthusiastic audience response, Jones’ vision has certainly struck a chord.
Its last revival took place during Covid restrictions in June 2021, and whilst there was much to admire – particularly the way revival director Daniel Dooner managed to get it on stage at all – seeing, and hearing it once again with a full complement of performers was immensely satisfying on every level. Jones’ staging, in Stewart Laing’s movable sets, may look traditional on the surface, but at this revival the staging’s sense of artifice came across more tellingly than on previous occasions.
By having stage handlers move the sets in full view of the audience we’re never allowed to forget we’re in a theatre and for me, this time round at least, the feeling of witnessing something that was blatantly being ‘staged’ somehow made the experience all the more poignant – the characters’ trials and tribulations of falling in and out of love that much more emotionally engaging. In taking this approach, both Jones and Laing are not only able to capture the intimacy of the students’ garrett at 7b, but also the hustle and bustle of Café Momus, and the Parisian shopping arcades. Whether or not their version will keep punters coming back for another 40 years remains to be seen, but it still exerts its spell after several encounters – the sign of a well thought through, expertly executed staging.
“…Jones’ vision has certainly struck a chord”
The company’s certainly banking on it drawing in the crowds, as 3 casts and conductors are scheduled over 16 performances this autumn. And as invariably is the case, the perfect cast would be a combination of singers from both, but having said that there was much to admire on each evening. In the first cast, dashing young Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky stole the vocal honours as a forthright, headstrong, beautifully voiced Marcello. His firm, effortlessly produced baritone was an unbridled joy to hear from start to finish. He’s definitely a name to watch. As his tempestuous lover, Musetta, Danielle de Niese repeated her acclaimed portrayal, nicely etching the character’s fiery and compassionate qualities, while singing impeccably. Ross Ramgobin leant Schaunard the right element of rumbustiousness, whilst Michael Mofidan’s sepulchral bass gave gravitas to the role of Colline.
This leaves the central pair of Rodolfo and Mimì. It was good to see Ailyn Pérez back on stage here, after too long an absence. There’s a wonderful bloom to the voice which fits this role perfectly,which she used to trace Puccini’s long vocal lines with innate musicianship – dramatically she was heartbreaking. In the right role Juan Diego Flórez has few rivals, but Rodolfo was always going to be a stretch for his essentially lyrical voice, especially in a house this size, and so it proved to be. At times struggling to be heard above the orchestra at full pelt, his voice simply didn’t have the required heft, despite conductor Kevin John Edusei’s sensitive accompaniment.
A couple of nights later, Freddie de Tomasso had no problems being heard, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s charted this young British tenor’s meteoric rise. He’s the real McCoy – a spinto tenor who fits Puccini’s music like a glove. He was ardent, yet lyrical when required, but has a slight tendency to sing sharp when under pressure. Given his solid technique and intuitive musicianship, this should be an easy fix. Aida Garifullina was a fragile, lovingly voiced Mimì – particularly heart-wrenching in her Act III encounter with Rodolfo. Lucy Crowe is a fine singer, but here seemed miscast as Musetta, as her pure, diamante voice needed more Italian warmth. Łukasz Goliński (Marcello), Dominic Sedgwick (Schaunard) and Adam Palka (Colline) all made their mark in what was a fine quartet of Bohemians.
Evelino Pidò is certainly a dab hand in this repertoire, but at times coordination between stage and pit went awry, but this is something that’s bound to settle down over the run. The orchestra played well on both evenings, whilst the Chorus, as always, couldn’t be faulted.
• Details of future performances can be found here.