By the time it was retired in 2015, the Royal Opera’s previous production of La Bohème, directed by John Copley, had notched up 25 revivals in its 41-year history, so the pressure was on for its 2017 replacement, directed by Richard Jones and with sets and costumes by Stewart Laing, for what is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide.
The play is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in about 1830 where on Christmas Eve we meet four struggling bohemians living in a garret: a poet, Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano); a painter, Marcello (Mariusz Kwiecień); a philosopher, Colline (Luca Trittoto); and a musician, Schaunard (Florian Sempes), who arrives having had some good fortune and they agree to celebrate by dining at Café Momus. They are interrupted by their landlord, Benoît (Jeremy White), but cleverly trick him into revealing he has been playing around which allows them to throw him out in comic moral indignation without paying their rent.
Whilst the others leave, Rodolfo remains but is interrupted by a knock at the door: a young girl needs to light her candle but then becomes faint and drops her key. As they search, Rodolfo discovers her name is Mimi (Nicole Car). As his impatient friends call for him, Rodolfo and Mimi declare their love for each other.
As the party dine in the hustle and bustle of the Latin Quarter, with toymaker Parpignol (Andrew Macnair) selling his wares, a former lover of Marcello, Musetta (Simona Mihai) appears with a rich and elderly admirer, Alcindoro (Wyn Pencarreg), in tow, and, to his embarrassment, she sings a risqué song to garner Marcello’s attention.
The opera resumes some months on with a clearly unwell Mimi searching for Marcello who is working in a nearby tavern. She tells him of Rodolfo’s jealousy although we discover this is a sham: he is too poor to care for her and hopes she will find love with a wealthier suitor. They are reunited in their love whilst, in contrast, Marcello quarrels with Musetta over her flirtatious behaviour.
Some weeks later we return to the garret where Marcello and Rodolfo are caught up in nostalgia for their girlfriends who have found new, wealthy lovers. Suddenly Musetta appears with Mimi in tow: reconciliations seem in order but will it all end too soon?
This was a polished production with the bareness of the garret, opening and closing the production, somewhat offset by the intricacy of its construction with the richness of the setting off the second act complete with arcades, swanky restaurant and Christmas crowds most definitely paying homage to Puccini’s original intent, replete with snow falling in the third act, although if I’m honest I would have liked a glimpse of Paris in moonlight as the backdrop.
Whilst the cast performed well, and there was certainly some good-humoured camaraderie between our four artisans at the beginning, overall it lacked a certain edge, even feeling a little flat at times, and there was no real chemistry between the pairings of Car/Fabiano and Mihai/ Kwiecień. What held it all together was the delightful music with conductor Antonio Pappano driving the story forward with a beautiful pacing that captured the emotional intensity of the piece and engaged us at every turn. A similar passion on the stage would have been the icing on the cake for what was ultimately an efficient production.
La Bohème is available to view for free for a limited period at https://www.roh.org.uk/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 3rd July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★