Snowy romance: La bohème at the Royal Opera House

Puccini – La bohème

Mimì –  Nicole Car
Rodolfo – Michael Fabiano
Marcello – Mariusz Kwiecień
Musetta – Simona Mihai
Schaunard – Florian Sempey
Colline – Luca Tittoto
Benoît – Jeremy White
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage Director – Richard Jones

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Monday, September 11th, 2017.

Tonight’s Bohème marked the opening of the 2017 – 18 season at the Royal Opera House.  It also marked the first new production of the work since John Copley’s venerable 1974 staging, which had been revived on multiple occasions over the years, featuring a veritable pantheon of lyric stars from the last four decades.  Entrusted to Richard Jones, this new staging is a co-production with Madrid and Chicago and featured a youthful cast of both up-and-coming and established artists.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

As we entered the auditorium, we were greeted by a single flurry of snow, constantly falling from the flies.  Indeed, the snow was a constant presence on stage reminding us of the wintry origins of Mimì and Rodolfo’s love.  As the story developed, the presence of the snow at the front of the stage in the final act, served as a reminder of what was and what could never have been.  The visuals were certainly spare – the Bohemians garret furnished with a stove and not much else.  Given the poor sightlines from parts of the theatre, there may be issues for viewers at the very back and extreme sides to be able to see the self-contained garret which houses Act 1.  For Act 2, we see a Parisian shopping mall gradually morph into a quite elegant and decadent Café Momus.  Yet, here and in the later acts, the scene changes are prepared right in front of us – quite noisily at times – almost giving us a forensic overview of the events unfolding in front of us.  We see everything that evolves in the story, and in many respects, it keeps us at a distance from the characters.  The sparseness of the environment requires a strong direction of the principals and truly outstanding singing-actors who can really project and live their characters within this environment.  I’m not quite convinced, this evening, that we got that.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Certainly, Simona Mihai’s Musetta and Mariusz Kwiecień’s Marcello absolutely tore up the stage in Act 2 – she vamping it up fabulously in ‘quando m’en vo’; he, athletically running around the stage in order to avoid seeing her antics.  Yet, far too often, the principals were marooned at the front, staring into the audience, instead of addressing each other.  This was especially noticeable in Act 3 where Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo and Nicole Car’s Mimì were parked at the front while Mihai and Kwiecień struck sparks off of one another upstage.  Perhaps it was first night nerves, but I never felt that youthful bloom of first love nor did the final act tear at the heartstrings in the way that it almost always should.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

I think there are several reasons for that.  One was Antonio Pappano’s conducting.  While he managed to get the house strings to play in tune and indulged them with soupy portamenti, far too often balance favoured the brass and winds who over-dominated the texture.  Tempi seemed either hard-driven or tension-sapping slow – Car in particular sounded as if she wanted ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ to go a notch or two faster, often running ahead of the beat.  The first act seemed lacking in wit and grace, the youthfulness sounding boisterous.  Ensemble was tight, however, among the principals and the tentativeness at the start of Act 2 in the chorus will surely settle during the run.  The Royal Opera chorus has made great improvements under their new director William Spaulding – the ladies, especially, sounding much more homogeneous than before.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Rodolfo is a good role for Fabiano.  He sang it with honesty and his heart on his sleeve. He phrased his music with love and attention and his intonation, often an issue in the past, was solid as he kept the over-singing to a minimum.  His ‘che gelida manina’ was sung with generosity and an easy line opening up to a full-throated, but slightly dry, high C.  His diction was good throughout, savouring the words.  The highlight was his duet with Kwiecień in Act 4 in which both gentlemen sang almost as if one, shading the music with real delicacy.  Tonight Fabiano gave us an honourable and deeply-felt performance if perhaps without the ultimate degree of tonal glamour.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Car’s Mimì I must admit I found problematic.  It’s a slender, attractive voice, peachy in tone and pleasant to listen to.  She has a good line and displayed some nice portamenti.  It seemed, though, that everything she did felt learned rather than felt.  That ability to translate the dots on the page into meaningful phrases that hold the attention isn’t there yet.  There are also signs of the vibrations loosening and a shortness at the very top.  Car can certainly produce beauty of tone but I longed for something that made me believe in her Mimì, that made me feel for her.  She is still young and with more experience it may well be that she can deepen her interpretation further.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Mihai’s Musetta was delicious – the tone perhaps somewhat shallow but it sparkled most endearingly.  She is taking over Mimì later in the run and will certainly be worth hearing.  She took over the stage and ran with it.  Similarly, Kwiecień dispatched his Marcello with his customary velvety baritone, singing with firm tone and genuine chemistry with his castmates.  Everything he did was truly sung off the text.  Florian Sempey’s Schaunard was somewhat blustery and cavalier with pitching at first but warmed up by Act 4 to reveal a handsome baritone.  Luca Tittoto sang his ode to the coat with warmth and an elegant line.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

This bohème felt ultimately like a work in progress – perhaps inevitable on a first night.  The staging is certainly one that has merits – the idea that one can see the set changes and constant presence of the snow reminding us of the moment of the coup de foudre have genuine potential.  However, it didn’t feel quite settled and in many ways it was due to the fact that the characters spent as much time addressing the front as they did each other.  It will be revived frequently during the season – indeed, I’m due to be back next month to see Benjamin Bernheim’s Rodolfo with Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta – and it will be fascinating to see how it develops over the run.  If tonight didn’t quite tug at my own heartstrings, it was warmly received by the audience.

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