Snowy Romance Resumed: A second viewing of La Bohème at the Royal Opera House

Puccini – La bohème

Mimì –  Nicole Car
Rodolfo – Benjamin Bernheim
Marcello – Mariusz Kwiecień
Musetta – Joyce El-Khoury
Schaunard – Gyula Nagy
Colline – Luca Tittoto
Benoît – Jeremy White
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Paul Wynne Griffiths.
Stage Director – Richard Jones

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Friday, October 6th, 2017. 

I returned tonight to Richard Jones’ new Bohème at the Royal Opera House to see a slightly different cast to the premiere, which I reviewed last month.  The Mimì was to have been the previous Musetta, Simona Mihai, but she withdrew and was replaced by the original Mimì, Nicole Car.  While the house had announced this change on the website and social media, the cast sheet was unchanged and there was no announcement from the stage – something that the previous Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, used to always take the time to do in person or by sending a representative.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

The production now seems a little more settled but I am still not quite convinced by it.  I think the main issue is Jones’ unwillingness to wear his heart on his sleeve – those scene changes made in plain sight make the production feel far too self-consciously clever, as if to say this isn’t real life, it’s just a theatrical construct.  In doing so I feel he diminishes the theatrical and emotional impact of the work – how can we be made to feel for these characters if we don’t believe that they can be real?  It needs exceptionally strong singing-actors to be able to transcend this.  This was especially noticeable with Car’s Mimì, the owner of an attractive voice who does much with the music, but it always feels imposed on it rather than coming from within.  It’s partly a question of phrasing – drawing out the contours of each line – but also of text, highlighting individual words for example.  The tone also lacks a little body below mezzo forte.  Although, given that, due to the cast changes, she is singing Mimì on consecutive evenings, any caution is understandable.  That said, as I mentioned last time, Car is still very young and clearly has the raw material but I left with the impression that as an interpreter and a technician there is still some work to be done.

Of course, singers never stop working – as the body evolves so does the technique – but also one’s interpretation of a part can evolve with time.  Mariusz Kwiecień is an artist who never takes anything for granted – surely one of the finest singing-actors of our time.  He never stands still, literally so in the case of his Marcello, always constantly on the move.  He brought out all the facets of the part – from jealous lover to caring friend both vocally and dramatically.  The warmth he brought out in the tone as he comforted Mimì or the metal on display as he tried to restrain his conflicting feelings for Musetta, his was very much a complete interpretation of the part.  The humanity he found in his duet with Benjamin Bernheim’s Rodolfo was deeply moving.

Joyce El-Khoury also gave us a knockout Musetta.  Hers was also a very complex creation – she was outrageous, pulling off her underwear and tossing it to Marcello, making out with a random lady and generally camping it up magnificently.  Yet she also found a pathos to the character, looking absolutely broken as she walked away from Marcello at the end of Act 3.  Her copper-toned soprano had genuine character and sparkled delightfully on top.  She is also a charismatic actress.  The remainder of the supporting roles were efficiently sung.

Bernheim gave us a glorious Rodolfo.  Right from his opening entry, his bright, well-placed tenor ringing out, it was immediately clear that we were in for something very special indeed.  His isn’t the biggest voice but it carries wonderfully, seemingly floating on air throughout the auditorium.  It is absolutely even from top to bottom – as he sang through ‘che gelida manina’ the voice took wing, drawing those ‘castelli in aria’, opening up in seemingly unlimited, unblemished beauty and rising to a fabulously full and even high C.  He found poetry in the text too – he made the text live, always using it as a starting point for his phrasing and used dynamics intelligently to create a rounded character.  The heartbreak he felt at the close was palpable.  Bernheim is a very major talent.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Paul Wynne Griffiths led a more relaxed and much less driven performance than Antonio Pappano.  There were a few stage/pit coordination issues but these will iron out in the subsequent performances.  I appreciated Griffiths’ finding more of a sense of charm and wit in Act 1 but the later acts felt somewhat four-square and saggy – not a question of speed but rather of tension.  His conducting was serviceable if perhaps not quite memorable.  The orchestra was fine – the strings much better tuned than usual, although it sounded like one of the trumpets was missing in action.  The chorus yet again consolidated the excellent work being done by William Spaulding – almost unrecognizable from their previous form, with good tuning in the ladies and a pleasing blend of vibratos.

There was so much that was good tonight – Bernheim’s Rodolfo, Kwiecień’s Marcello and El-Khoury’s Musetta really were outstanding.  It definitely felt like a very different show to the one I saw a few weeks ago, much more settled and as Bernheim sang his glorious aria and his duet with Kwiecień, really quite moving.  This cast is certainly worth seeing.

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