A Deeply Disappointing La bohème at the Royal Opera House

18/06/2018

Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Tiffin’s Children’s Chorus, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Nicola Luisotti (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 16.6.2018. (MB)

Richard Jones’s La bohème (c) Catherine Ashmore

Cast:
Marcello – Etienne Dupuis
Rodolfo – Matthew Polenzani
Colline – Fernando Radó
Schaunard – Duncan Rock
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Maria Agresta
Parpignol – Andrew Macnair
Musetta – Danielle de Niese
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg
Customs Officer – John Morrissey
Sergeant – Thomas Barnard

Production:
Richard Jones (director)
Julia Burbach (revival director)
Stewart Laing (director)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie, Danielle Urbas (movement)

Poor Puccini. He suffers more than any other composer I know from being treated as a box-office draw. (Dmitri Tcherniakov notwithstanding, Carmen is perhaps not so dissimilar; yet, given its status as the sole Bizet opera worth staging – Lord preserve us from the tedium of another Pearl Fishers – the situation remains different.) The requirement, however, for making at least four of his operas so unfailing a draw seems to be to prevent anything but the most ‘traditional’ of stagings from seeing the light of day. I have no idea what Claus Guth’s recent Bohème was like, but thank goodness the Paris Opéra showed itself willing to do something different with the work. Stefan Herheim’s superlative, death-haunted production for Oslo remains hors concours. Otherwise, ‘major houses’ remain not so much unwilling to experiment as adamantly opposed.

I wondered, then, what Richard Jones might make of the same opera. My sense, whilst away, was that reception of its first outing had not generally been favourable. A sign of hope, perhaps? Alas not. I have never been less moved, even when I maintained a frostier stance towards Puccini than I do now, by a performance of La bohème. Indeed, given that I was not so much as slightly moved even once, such would have been impossible. That cannot have been entirely the production’s fault, but it bore greater responsibility than anything else. Now a Brechtian, post-dramatic Bohème might be a fascinating prospect indeed: imagine what Achim Freyer (when on form) or Frank Castorf might do with, or to, the work. I know that Peter Konwitschny has staged it too, although I have yet, alas, to catch up with that production. Try as I might, though, I could find no edge, no critique. This seems merely cynical – and merely cynical in just about the worst way.

The first act is stark, or at least its design is. A basic roof frame is a little more suggestive of a garret than often one sees, although the fact that one sees no sleeping quarters is, within a realistic framework, perhaps a little odd. (I shall return to that.) There is not much more to it, yet often there is not: other than everyone shivering. I presume the slightly repellent hair – is it meant to look dirty or just nasty? – of the students is intended to convey poverty or slovenliness, or both, but I am not sure. Snow falls throughout, though, in a seemingly sentimental fashion, as if to appease those who wanted ‘traditional’ atmosphere. Perhaps they are being sent up, but I am afraid I found little sign of that. Even if they were, should they be?

A seemingly obscene amount of money is then expended on designs for the second act: as if to say, ‘you thought you had the germs of an austere concept, so I’ll show you’. Lavish shopping arcades – nineteenth-century Paris, I suppose, yet hardly suggestive of Walter Benjamin – whirl around for a little while centre-stage, then are banished, so that the action can take place. It is all very chocolate-box musical comedy, yet seemingly not with irony. (And even if it is, why?) Café Momus is more Michelin-starred restaurant than a place for Bohemian encounters. There is little attempt, so far as I can ascertain, to suggest either that the characters are genuinely poor, or that they are privileged boys playing at being poor. It all just seems ill-thought-through. There is worse, though. Musetta, robbed of the elegance her music suggests, is merely a drunk, who climbs on the table and, with difficulty, delivers herself of her underwear to throw around. Perhaps there is a plausible non-misogynist reading of what we saw; if so, it passed me by. Snow continues to fall.

As indeed, it does in the second half: straightforward to a degree. (John Copley surely accomplished that better – and with far more of a sense of what the opera is, or at least might be, about.) Everything happens more or less as it ‘should’, yet with a casualness to the direction that makes one wonder why anyone bothered. The only real oddity is that, when Mimì arrives, and a bed has to be found for her, it is merely linen or a blanket, or something. Again, one might think that intended to convey poverty: have they really been living like that all that time? It does not seem like it, though, and such an idea does not seem to cohere with anything else. Perhaps because there is not anything much else with which to cohere. The work ends: unloved and yet also uncriticised. It would take a better production than this, however ‘traditional’, to manage either.

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting did not help, either – although oddly, it often seemed rather in keeping with Jones’s vision (or lack thereof). Much, especially in the outer acts, was marmoreal; much more almost – yet not quite – brutal. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well enough, yet nothing like what once it could. (To think, this was once Bernard Haitink’s orchestra – and before that Colin Davis’s.) Luisotti, who impressed greatly in Il trittico in 2016, seemed at times so impatient as to be wishing to be elsewhere – I sympathised – and, when he did permit something loosely known as ‘emotion’, to be doing so less out of conviction than from duty: colouring-book Puccini. Structural grip was not lacking, yet it was mere external, imposed ‘structure’ rather than formal dynamism, content possessing but a tenuous relationship to the receptacle into which it had been squeezed. Even the Wagnerisms – a little hint of Tristan there, a Meistersinger-ish moment there – sounded incidental, certainly not generative. Puccini as modernist: forget it. As for Luisotti’s reprehensible slowing down so as actually to invite multiple instances of philistine applause within an act…

The cast did a decent enough job but there was nothing to get too excited about in that respect either. How much was the responsibility of director and conductor was, in this case, difficult to tell; yet there must be something a little awry when the most memorable vocal performances come from an excellent Colline and Schaunard (Fernando Radó and Duncan Rock). Both seemed far more alert to the drama of words and music than either Jones or Luisotti. Maria Agresta sang the part of Mimì nicely enough; I am not sure I have anything more to say about that. Danielle de Niese certainly gave a sincere, committed performance; she always has done in any role in which I have seen her. Leaving aside Jones’s perverse portrayal of her in the second act, though, sincerity was not enough to mask thinness of voice. Matthew Polenzani proved an ardent enough Rodolfo, Etienne Dupuis likewise as Marcello, but their hearts did not seem – perhaps understandably – really to be in it. For there was little heart on display at all here; nor was there anything dramatically on hand, alas, to replace it.

Mark Berry

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Comments

Comments

  1. Ermes De Zan says:

    I’m a devotee of Seen and Heard International and always enjoy the reviews that keep me in the loop from far away Sydney however I question what Mr. Berry has to say not about this production [haven’t seen it], but other statements. The Oslo production was diabolical. Set in a cancer ward I ask you. I guess Mr. Berry feels that like most German Opera houses, the director must have a ‘concept’. Better still something that tramples the composers intentions and shows that the director knows best. Perhaps he would like Mimì eaten and disgorged by a crocodile. The most moving ‘Bohème’ I have ever seen was Zeffirelli’s old production at the Vienna Opera. The acting was brilliant as was the singing and the dramatic tension in the last scene brought tears to anyone who had a heart and was not out for intellectual triumphalism.

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      I will leave Mark to reply or not himself. However it is always good to hear from a devotee and we know there are many of you out there thankfully. Zeffirelli’s ‘La bohème’ premiered in 1963(!!) in Vienna and will be revived for the umpteenth time next season when it will be 55 years old of course. I saw it in my formative years during one of many visits to Vienna and remember it well.

  2. maire says:

    I saw the “second cast” last night (27 June) and am due to see the “first cast” next week.

    The production – I don’t care much for it, and did not first time around last autumn. I don’t think any of the acts work that well, including the rather odd lighting (i.e. full blast) in Acts I and IV.

    However the singing and playing were absolutely moving. Not a “stellar” cast (albeit Mimì particularly was lovely) but it worked a treat (even if “closing the eyes” was sometimes a good tactic).

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