YVONNE LYSANDROU sees a production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera which doesn't quite hit the target
La Boheme Royal Opera House, London WC2 3/5
WITH good reason, Puccini’s crowd-pleasing spectacle La Boheme is a guaranteed money-spinner.
With its teeming Parisian streets, garrets inhabited by starving artists and a doomed tragic love affair — set to Puccini’s sublime score, with exquisite arias and a terrific tragi-comic libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica — it's a guaranteed bums-on-seats formula.
Hardly surprising, then, that any production is virtually bullet-proof and why this opera above all others dominates the Royal Opera House and the New York Met repertoires.
John Copley’s 1974 production for the ROH ran for over four decades and it's now been replaced with a new version by Richard Jones in which he's clearly trying to make a break with Copley’s realistic settings, not to mention Franco Zeffirelli’s famously lavish 1981 production which still runs at the Met.
But Jones and designer Stewart Laing’s attempted break with these legendary productions does not convince. At the outset of Act 1, the snowy opening with the impoverished bohemian artists is less garret and more Scandi ski lodge, with blonde wood and minimalist decor.
This didn’t bode well but in the second act the mobile pod constructs of brasserie and Paris streets is wonderfully done.Simona Mihai is a very affecting Mimi and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo is in terrific voice, although his vocal prowess seems a tad unfeeling as he belts out his anguish as Mimi lies dying.
This production does bring out the comedy of the Giacosa-Illica libretto. Nicole Car vocally conjures a raucous and joyously sexy-strumpet Musetta, especially in Cafe Momus, where she whips off her silk knickers while singing atop a table — no mean feat.
The final act in the bohemian’s garret, too brightly illuminated by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, disappoints. Mimi’s deathbed scene on a mattress leaning up against a stove, with her neck at an awkward angle, is distracting and just looks annoyingly wrong.
Jones has said of conductor Antonio Pappano that he has a “theatre gene” — spot on, as it is left to Pappano's commanding and richly textured interpretation, along with the ROH orchestra, to really build the dramatic tension and bring together this somewhat fragmented production.
La Boheme is still bullet-proof but a bit of shrapnel has landed here.