I enjoyed The Royal Opera's latest revival of their production of Puccini's romantic tragedy La Bohème, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. This production was first shown in 1974 and has lasted exceptionally well. It is very much an atmospheric design and a great relief to have a straightforward setting where an attic is an attic and a bar is a bar. The production has loads of detail and stage action but lets the music shine forth without distraction as Puccini unleashes his full romantic palette.
Semyon Bychkov started off briskly: that seems to be the most effective way to settle the audience, many of whom are there as much for a night out enjoying corporate hospitality as to enjoy an emotional workout. The strong emotions of Act One of La Bohème, contrasting what was 19th century Paris bohemian or laddish behaviours with high emotion, verge on sentimentality that seems a strange recreation for corporate people who must deny their own emotions to achieve their success. It's as much a contrast as a boxing dinner with the East End's hopefuls fighting for the entertainment of the black tie and suited diners.
But I digress, Semyon Bychkov’s conducting proved fluid and responsive; he was clearly providing cohesion for the singers and ensuring the orchestra supported and responded. And Puccini's challenging partnerships between the female singers and the brass were balanced faultlessly.
Royal Opera's La Bohème has had a number of changes in vocal cast since originally announced; the production continues with a “bigger name” cast next month. Everything was more than all right on the night: we saw fresh, youngish singers all in good voice and with good ensemble, convincing acting and characterisation. They brought to life Puccini's contrasts between light and dark, pathos and bandinage and even the irony as Colline bids farewell to his faithful old coat before he pawns it to pay for medicine for the dying Mimì.
Carmen Giannattasio as Mimì was powerful, icily tragic in Act One and convincingly weak by Act Four. She achieved her pathos by vocal characterisation rather than coughing: there were quite enough male coughs in the audience; a French contingent near my seat were particularly inconsiderate.
Mimì's Rodolfo, sung by Joseph Calleja, was convincingly poetic, amorous yet troubled by whether to stand by Mimì despite her illness. Musetta sung at short notice by Madeleine Pierard was a convincing flirt and coquette.
And a star perfomance by Puffin, a white, long-haried white German Spitz cat. Also the one child singer who seized his momen when he delivered his one sung line "I want a horse"; he stole the stage despite all other atractions. Typical of the detailed production.
My impression overall was of a production that has stood the test of time supporting excellent performances by convincing and fresh musicians. My faith in the Royal Opera had been waning after a couple of recent shows had been disappointing but I am reassured: I don’t have any other tickets booked until the Ring in October and that is quite an investment... but I am now booked for a season ticket for the 2012 Proms.
Director: John Copley
Designs: Julia Trevelyan Oman
Lighting design: John Charlton
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Mimì: Carmen Giannattasio
Rodolfo: Joseph Calleja
Musetta: Madeleine Pierard
Marcello: Fabio Capitanucci
Colline: Yuri Vorobiev
Schaunard: Thomas Oliemans
Benoît: Jeremy White
Alcindoro: Donald Maxwell
Parpignol: Luke Price
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House