Puccini: La boheme

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 21 December 2009 2.5 stars

La bohemeThe sight of a sheepish member of an opera's production team on stage pre-show is a familiar fixture of cold and flu season. While any last minute casting changes usually provoke disappointed rustlings from the audience, to my mind the worst scenario to be faced with is a singer determined to perform despite illness but who 'craves your indulgence'.

Such was the case on Saturday night, when Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo) very audibly struggled his way to the end of Act II of La Boheme before finally doing the decent thing and retiring in favour of the role's alternate performer Teodor Ilincai. While perhaps commendable in more general circumstances, the endeavour of struggling against stacked odds is not something calculated to enhance any opera-going experience; it is all but impossible to be drawn into a story when its emotional drama is entirely outweighed by the musical drama of whether the singer will in fact make it to the next note or phrase.

Other than this all-too-central blot however, an evening spent in the company of John Copley's 1974 production brought with it no untoward shocks or surprises; his really is a Boheme that does what it says on the tin – just add snowfall, a colourful children's chorus, and serve to a festively inclined Christmas audience.

With its restrained and contextually honest sets, the production does well to render the Bohemian experience without too much of the rose-tinted romanticising that Puccini allows himself. The garret where the young artists live – too often a frenzy of precious and ludicrously stylised poverty – is an effectively simple space, with its multiple levels functioning both dramatically and aesthetically to make sense of the opening action. Costumes and props too are understated, with the rather unexpected exception of a live lapdog for Musetta's first scene, whose brief presence seemed to please and amuse an audience eager for more comedy than this production was willing to provide. The snowy tableau of Act III was the closest to indulgence that we came during the evening, with the rising curtain provoking audible appreciation from the audience, but even this was judged just on the right side of kitsch.

Musically the night was dominated by Hibla Gerzmava's Mimi, who while more serious and restrained than many, charmed with her warmly expressive and technically secure singing. Faced with an ailing Rodolfo, it was she who carried the first two acts together with Gabriele Viviani's Marcello. The best actor of the piece, Viviani was almost solely responsible for bringing the necessary warmth and camaraderie to the opening scenes, which still lacked something of the energetic sparkle that lesser productions have more effectively captured. Kostas Smoriginas and Jacques Imbrailo as Colline and Schaunard respectively were adequate, but far from exciting by way of support. Inna Dukach's Act II Musetta was captivating and never less than in command of her music, but it was in Act IV that she really came into her own, bringing a tenderness and humanity to this rather brittle creature that is too often missed.

La bohemeIt seems unfair to review Beczala's Rofolfo, but as his replacement Ilincai was solid and technically competent. Once again however – a general truth for this revival – he lacked the dramatic presence and conviction that I would have liked to have seen. With such an appropriately young cast the task of rendering Boheme's story movingly should become far easier, yet somehow this wasn't the case and I was left with a sense that something was still wanting.

In the pit things were rather more convincing. Andris Nelsons spared no energy in guiding his orchestra through a meticulously detailed and colourful rendering of the score. If on occasion his extraordinary efforts recalled Hoffnung's series of cartoons 'The Maestro', then the results more than justified his uniquely physical approach.

On the night before Boheme I was once again at Covent Garden, this time watching John Schlesinger's Rosenkavalier. With two equally venerable and ubiquitous revivals playing side-by-side this season comparison is both inevitable and interesting; while the chocolate-box staging and excess of Rosenkavalier – recalling nothing so much as the Technicolor musicals of the 1950s – could easily mask the humanity of the work, its poignantly contemporary drama buried under gilt and petticoats, the result was anything but staid. Largely owing to the sheer quality of its cast, the production succeeded in that hardest of balancing acts, creating a work that was both a faithful classic and a freshly vivid spectacle. Sadly the same cannot be said for Boheme; set against the emotional sincerity of Rosenkavalier its young lovers and their Parisian playground seemed both hollow and tired.

This winter's Boheme is a nice enough production sung nicely in the main by its young cast. Is this reason enough to buy a ticket this festive season? Possibly. Reason enough to justify a twenty-third revival? Not nearly.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photo credits: Johan Persson

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