Royal Opera House 2023–24 Review: La bohème

Puccini Gets the Short Shrift in This Stunted Template of a Classic

By Sophia Lambton
(Photo: Camilla Greenwell/Royal Opera House)

Trailing draggily behind Puccini’s rue and jubilance, this season’s Royal Opera House revival of the tearful “La bohème” appears afraid of the work’s earnestness. Decked out in semi-mockeries of 1830s Paris, Richard Jones’ 2017 production favors episodes of bawdiness at the expense of the Bohemian; endangering its players’ vocal liberties. Perhaps as the result of this unease, this second of three casts now in rotation suffered from persistent lapses often characterized by delays.

Bareness blares white hospital-like light across the first and final acts in a half-octagon: the four men’s spartan attic. Striped down to its wooden beams and possibly aspiring to be zany, this insipid prism takes up two fifths of the stage, engaging the blank rest in nothingness. In its bland hub are visible some tins and paintbrushes but never evidence of art’s creation: this rendition of the opera hinges on a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that “bohème” means an excuse to laze about and miss out on a “real job.”

While the libretto’s first act has the clan burn leading man Rodolfo’s play, abstaining color readily attests to the quartet’s aculturality: no scruffy clutter, sketches or first drafts mount columns on the floor. Instead the setting is an opportunity for boisterous boys to prank and dawdle; avidly designing forms of female nudes (including breasts and nether regions) on the walls.

Statement-making finger-pointing plots with kicking in the men to code some kind of secret greeting. Elsewhere Musetta muses on her destiny absent of merriness; at one point loosening her hair to shove it in her face and muffle, mezzo Simona Mihai’s sound. In the third act she shines in neon yellow, satirizing the Napoleonic era dresses in a guise of 1980s glitz. Glitter appears on purple stripes across a crinoline-supported skirt in the café scene, neighboring plaid outfits in the shades of indigo and crimson. It’s the microcosm of a child’s impression of the epoch: realistic touches meshed with samples of flamboyance and a light attempt at mimicry.

The Latin Quarter is a trio of contrasting arches – offering a pond green perfume shop with giant globes in one, a chocolaterie of shapes resembling pink and powder blue berets in another. Outside Café Momus the twin rows of pearly goblet lamps on black sticks call to mind magicians’ wands.

The overall effect is lacking both in humor and in motleyness. Too little detail makes up a pastiche and singers’ movements indicate a similarity to farce. Whether this fulsome yet at times minimalist treatment sticks to any genre or espouses any trends; whether it panders to the opera skeptic or displays dyspeptic living is a mystery.

Dressing the composer’s score in recognizable verismo, maestro Evelino Pidò thankfully entrusted strings’ arrays to lusciousness; ushering in the incarnations of Rodolfo, Mimì, Musetta and Marcello where their staggering portrayals fell short. Decisive rhythms split moroseness and the intervals jocose; closing off the last act with a minatory ominousness underpinning Mimì’s death. Nevertheless flutes popped occasionally out of place and brass were late to meet in the first act.

Crescendi steered an instrument too loud in Stefan Pop’s brash capture of Rodolfo. Endowed with corpulence in his strong, middle register, Pop easily supports top notes with pronounced clarity of tone – but rarely opts to actualize it. At the embarkment of “Che gelida manina,” Pop thinned down his timbre to gentle, near-inaudibility. Occasionally such a practice led to head-voice notes that slipped into falsetto.

Rodolfo’s mini-monologue to Mimì – “Per sogni e per chimere e per castelli in aria ho milionaria” (“Through hopes and dreams and castles in the air, I am a millionaire in spirit”) raced to catch up with a punctual orchestra; “speranza” of “poiché, poiché, v’ha preso stanza la speranza” (“since the empty place was filled with hope”) veered on the point of cracking its high C. In his imploration to Marcello at the start of the third act – “Aiuto! Aiuto!” (“Help me! “Help me!”) his pitch was threatened. During the culmination’s “Sono andati” duet, Pop’s reaction to the dying woman’s memories was “Ah, Mimì-ì-ì”: an unforeseen trill substituting just one syllable. Frequently the voice fell victim to a need to overdramatize at realism’s peril.

Nearly thirty-two years since debuting in her role, soprano Angela Gheorghiu reprised Mimì – extending a slim timbre primed for a mellifluous fragility. Unfortunately Gheorghiu strived to emphasise her top notes when preceding lower ones were loath to meet her expectations; loading the first, “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” with a crescendo totally at odds with the girl’s bashfulness. “Mi piaccion quelle cose” (“I like those things”) emerged off-pitch in the company of “il profumo d’un fior” (“the scent of a flower”).

Certain ends of lines were rounded off in beautiful extinguishment when breath sufficed: “non hanno odor” (“don’t have a scent”, in reference to the flowers Mimì made), as well as her despondent parting with Marcello in their Act three duet, “Sen…za…. ran… cor” (“No hard feelings”). Nostalgizing before her death, she offered once more “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” – but this time with a portamento wedged between “no” and “Mimì”, so that it came out “mi chiama-no-o Mimì.” Sadly Gheorghiu’s faults in the embodiment of the shy girl outweighed her virtues.

Andrey Zhilikovsky’s cynical Marcello plunged the rich depths of his baritone to bring to life a well-sustained resolve, particularly at the beginning of the opera when he seeks to burn a chair for warmth (“Sacrifiam la sedia”). A dusky tessitura delved into doom’s imminence as Michael Mofidian’s bass-baritone reflected on his “Vecchia zimarra”: the old coat he gives to Mimì to protect her – inanely – from cold; conveying sombreness where none was present in the set.

Subjected to the toughest challenges in crass choreography, mezzo-soprano Simona Mihai – according to Jones’ or revival director Simon Iorio – had to play drunk throughout “Quando m’en vo”; flinging her underwear at Marcello. Whether or not this impacted vocality, Musetta’s claim of people stopping to observe her beauty (“la gente sosta e mira”) was fragmented into parts made too distinct by sudden fortes. Accusing beau Marcello of still loving her, she had to thrust her hair into her face; obstructing the sound of “non le vuoi dir, ma ti senti morir” (“You don’t want to admit it, but I know that it’s killing you”) with a timbre suggestive of shame, not defiance.

A chasm between music’s sentiments and an impoverished vision clashed with needless errors in this take on a fan-favorite. It may have been the polar opposite of an exemplary production.


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