PUCCINI La Bohème (Pappano)
The retirement of John Copley’s 1974 production of La bohème was met with something approaching national mourning by many opera-goers, and rightly so. It was a true gem and Copley returned to lovingly direct each revival. The Royal Opera knew it was going to be a hard act to follow – rumours were that the order went out from on high not to destroy Julia Trevelyan Oman’s marvellous sets at least until Richard Jones’s new production had been unveiled last year.
Jones can be a frustrating director, his stagings stuffed with visual tics. At his worst – Britten’s Gloriana, for example – he seems to send up the opera in question. At his considerable best, though – and I’d cite Trittico here, especially his take on Suor Angelica – he shows touches of true genius. But it’s difficult to know exactly what Jones thinks of Bohème, though, because his staging is, with one exception, pretty bland.
Mercifully, there are none of Jones’s familiar animal masks, paper bags on heads or flock wallpaper, but his familiar playful attitude to perspective pays dividends in a showpiece Act 2, Parisian arcades gliding across the stage before we settle into a chic Café Momus where Musetta’s tabletop Waltz Song ends in her whipping off her knickers to the astonishment of the crowds pressing their noses to the windows. Stewart Laing’s sets don’t serve the drama so well elsewhere. The bohemians’ garret looks spruce and Scandinavian among the flurries of snow, so brightly lit that candles (a crucial plot element) would be rendered redundant. However, these poor little rich boys – for that’s who they seem to be – clearly haven’t bothered with any furnishings yet. Most damagingly, during the closing bars of the Act 3 quartet where both couples break up (Mimì and Rodolfo reluctantly, Musetta and Marcello volcanically), Jones has the little tavern shunt upstage to make way for the return of Act 4’s Ikea garret. It kills the moment.
Antonio Pappano is always terrific in Puccini. His pacing and attention to orchestral detail are superb and he draws highly sympathetic playing from his orchestra. But the vocal performances here don’t really make this a Bohème to stand out from the crowd. There’s not much of the poet in Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo, oversinging early on, although he has a fabulous, Italianate sound. Mariusz Kwiecień is a stylish Marcello, easily snared by Simona Mihai’s attractive Musetta. The other bohemian lads are amiable, no more. The Australian soprano Nicole Car is a lovely Mimì, though, very much the girl next door, with a simple charm to her Act 1 aria that immediately makes you love her. She rides Puccini’s long lyric phrases in Act 3 especially well and her death is touching. Rhodri Huw’s stylish film direction certainly draws the viewer but it’s going to need further acquaintance with this production, ideally with stronger singers, for Jones’s Bohème to cast any magic.