A Tale of Two Bohèmes: La Bohème at the Royal Opera

Puccini – La bohème

 Marcello – Massimo Cavalletti

Rodolfo – Vittorio Grigolo

Colline – Gábor Bretz

Schaunard – Lauri Vasar

Benoît – Jeremy White

Mimì – Angela Gheorghiu

Parpignol – Luke Price

Musetta – Irina Lungu

Alcindoro – Donald Maxwell

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Cornelius Meister

Stage director – John Copley

Royal Opera House, London.  Tuesday, July 15th, 2014.



Puccini – La bohème

Marcello – Markus Werba

Rodolfo – Charles Castronovo

Colline – Park Jongmin

Schaunard – Daniel Grice

Benoît – Jeremy White

Mimì – Ermonela Jaho

Parpignol – Luke Price

Musetta – Simona Mihai

Alcindoro – Donald Maxwell

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Cornelius Meister

Stage director – John Copley

Royal Opera House, London.  Saturday, July 19th, 2014.


These two performances of La bohème represented the final shows in the Royal Opera House 2013 – 2014 season.  And what a season it has been.  Undoubtedly, one of the best in years and these performances were a fitting conclusion.  They were very different and raised issues about what one really looks for in an opera performance.

Vittorio Grigolo is the owner of an undeniably wonderful instrument.  His tenor is rich, open and easily produced.  Yet he is also self-indulgent.  ‘Che gelida manina’ was pulled about tempo-wise to no apparent purpose, there seemed to be no sense of line yet he does have a fantastic top C.  The vocal highlight for me of his performance was his fourth act duet with Massimo Cavalletti’s superb Marcello.  He did also close the work nicely without overdoing it.  Yet at no point did I feel that I believed in his Rodolfo rather than feel that I was seeing a celebrity incarnate a role.  Similarly with Angela Gheorghiu’s Mimì.  For a soprano pushing 50 her instrument is in remarkable shape – no beat, no wobble and sounds incredibly fresh.  Her voice is instantly recognizable, warm and rich.  It took her a little while to settle – intonation in ‘mi chiamano Mimí’ was troublesome – but she eventually warmed up to give us a glorious ‘donde lieta uscì’.  Yet she left me strangely unmoved for perhaps the same reason as Grigolo.  It was unquestionably beautiful but it didn’t quite, for me, feel genuine.

Ermonela Jaho on the other hand gave us something very special.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say she gave us the finest Mimì I have yet seen on stage.  Her soprano has a limpid beauty that, combined with an inherent ability to lovingly phrase the music, results in an overwhelming emotional impact.  Even a word as small as ‘grazie’, in Mimì and Rodolfo’s first encounter, is loaded with gratitude in a way that you genuinely believe what she is singing.  Naturally ‘donde lieta uscì’ was gloriously phrased with a natural sense of line that was captivating.  Charles Castronovo’s Rodolfo was an ideal partner to her.  He found so much poetry in the text and communicated it so fully, that one genuinely believed that he was a poet.  The hairpin on the word ‘dir’ at the end of a generously, gloriously sung ‘che gelida manina’ is but one example of the detail that he found in the role.  It was always scrupulously musical and gloriously vocalized.  Combined, they were absolutely devastating, finding an emotional honesty in the work that is extremely rare.

Both pairs were surrounded by excellent casts.  Massimo Cavalletti’s Marcello revealed a major talent with a big, muscular sound able to carry through Act 4 at a time when other Marcellos start to tire.  It’s an exciting sound and combined with his wonderful attention to text and an authentic gift for communication make him a singer to watch.  Markus Werba’s Marcello was a bit narrower in sound.  His Italian was excellent and he was an affecting stage presence.  Irina Lungu gave us a highly vocally glamorous Musetta and ‘quando me n’vò’ was deliciously dispatched.  Her Act 4 prayer was sung with great sincerity.  Simona Mihai offered us a nicely contrasting soprano to Jaho’s with a slightly more acidic edge and she was an amusing and, where necessary moving stage presence.

Lauri Vasar’s Schaunard was somewhat tremulous though he threw himself into the role while Daniel Grice offered us a firm baritone and real chemistry with his cast mates.  I liked Gábor Bretz’s wonderfully lugubrious Colline with his excellent diction.  Park Jongmin was firm and glamorous of tone yet the diction was slightly cloudy.  Jeremy White and Donald Maxwell were common to both casts and gave us fine cameos.  The chorus sounded somewhat threadbare and lacked the unanimity of tone and blend that the finest opera choruses have.

The orchestra played extremely well for Cornelius Meister.  These were the 610th and 612th Royal Opera Bohèmes so they have certainly had a lot of practice.  His was a symphonic reading led more by the music than by the text.  In places (such as when they burn the manuscript in Act 1 or Parpignol’s music in Act 2), it sounded much more ‘modern’ than it usually does with a wider range of orchestral colours than one usually hears.  It was a young man’s reading, swift and alive.  It was a different approach and I appreciated hearing it.  John Copley’s 40-year-old production is an institution and Copley came back to personally supervise this revival.  It’s a traditional staging and there was a naturalness to the Personenregie that felt perfectly right.

These two performances represented a great end to this outstanding Royal Opera season.  Both were spectacularly sung by two exceptionally fine casts.  They also introduced me to some significant major talents.  Yet for me, Jaho and Castronovo managed to encapsulate the spirit of the work in a way that will be extremely difficult to forget.  Outstanding.

Ermonela Jaho as Mimì and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo in La bohème © ROH / Catherine Ashmore




  1. You seem to always side with the underdog. Even though Gheorghiu and Grigolo gave astonishing performances, in your socialist view they have to be faulted for being operatic superstars and stars, respectively. Their only fault is being famous.

    Anyway, you suffer from Tall Poppy syndrome, so please do some reading on it:

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment although I’m not quite sure you read or understood what I was saying in my piece. I am however very happy that you had so much satisfaction from their performances.

      • I entirely agree with your assessment of these two performances, as I was also lucky enough to witness both casts. Both were excellent, but as you’ve suggested the committment of Jaho and Castronovo won through. In the starrier cast, I agree that neither singer entirely inhabited the role and I found myself far less moved as a result.

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. It really was unforgettable – I’m still thinking about it 3 days later!

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