La bohème – The Royal Opera House

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Director: Richard Jones

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A painter, a scholar, a musician, and a poet convene in their ramshackle abode – late on rent, low on funds, but bountiful in spirit(s). Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème is one of the artform’s most regularly performed pieces, and a staple of Italian opera repertories. The tale of a lowly seamstress and her gaggle of bohemian chums is the grounds for melodrama at its most pungent. When Rodolfo, a penniless poet encounters the seamstress, Mimi, love blossoms; well, it is an opera after all.

For a limited time, The Royal Opera House has made its recording of La bohème free. Directed by Richard Jones, this version of Puccini’s timeless escapade charters love in a crowded city, and the descent into heartache that follows. Our lead tenors and baritones, these four bohemians, provide exemplary vocals, with the over-the-top scene-chewing one would expect. Balancing control of their powerful voices, while equally harmonizing is a necessity that Michael Fabiano, Mariusz Kwiecień, Luca Tittoto and Florian Sempey achieve.

Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto continues to be one of opera’s signature pieces, infusing derivative humour with genuine emotion, courtesy of love interests Mimi and Musetta, arguably the muses for the men. But figuratively they also hold genuine sway and power, particularly at the masterful hands of Simona Mihai’s Musetta, who captures Giacosa and Illica’s ludicrous sense of absurdist comedy. Her performance of Quando me’n vo’, miserably failing to capture Marcello’s eye, is a stand-out routine, accentuated by the allure of her crimson dress, set against the clinical ‘grandeur’ of a snow-white cafe.

The ridiculous exuberance of the first act captures the integral ‘feel’ of La bohème, as the four bohemians dine, and outwit their landlord, but Stewart Laing’s design is a piece of staggering scale come the market-place and café of Act two. The size of the crowd aids, not only vocally as an ever-present backing, but also to convey the magnitude of the shops as Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting grows from soft ambers into a sterile white.

What couldn’t be more different than the opulence of Act Two, is the prolonged silence of the third Act’s opening, as a chill and foreboding emanate. The levity and rapscallion nature of the production’s first half ebbs into a solemn note. Away from the brilliance of looming scale, Laing’s set design shrinks in on itself, positioning our singers into the cold outdoors, as the composition gradually weighs down emotionally, the promise of one last winter’s love.

This staying power of Puccini’s Opera is the sword the Royal Opera House falls upon. As a production of La bohème, there is little to fault, but there’s nothing which stamps a uniqueness for Royal Opera. If anything, its dedication to extravagance leads to a clash of score, action, and performance. Opera is dramatic, but even this has limitations. The filming is sporadic, unsure of where to focus with such bold characters and rich melodrama, and no matter where the camera is pointing something will be missed.

Perhaps the most significant talent, control and execution are demonstrated by Antonio Pappano, for conducting the Royal Court House Orchestra: an invigorating interpretation of Puccini’s classic. La bohème will survive as a core production for opera, and while change is unnecessary or unwelcomed, the Royal Opera House’s production plays it safe, relying on the audience’s already established charm for the libretto, and luckily it has the performers to carry it off.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Available to stream here until 17 July 2020


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