High Jinks from Companiable La bohème Cast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Broadcast to the Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly, London, 15.1.2012. (JPr)

Rodolfo: Dmytro Popov
Musetta: Stefania Dovhan
Mimi: Maija Kovalsvska
Marcello: Auden Iverson

Production: John Copley
Designs: Julia Trevelyan Oman
Cinema Direction: Kriss Russman

As I was unable to see the current revival of La bohème in the opera house, I braved the bitterly cold winds from Scandinavia bringing arctic conditions to some parts of Eastern England to go to my first ever Royal Opera House Cinema screening. Given the prevailing weather conditions perhaps I could have chosen a sunnier opera (not that there are many of those), because sitting in the sold-out Apollo Cinema I had a certain sympathy for Puccini’s Bohemians in their cold garret and later outside the Barrière d’Enfer with the snow gently falling.

This relay was described as ‘delayed live’ that actually translates as ‘recorded on 10th January’ (and possibly another night too) after the original Rodolfo – and original main attraction, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón – had withdrawn from further performances. Even though this was not actually a live transmission, audiences sitting in the cinema sat down to hear the general background noise of a theatre filling prior to a performance and Sir Antonio Pappano introduced the proceedings without reference to the fact that what we were seeing was not happening ‘in real time’. Nevertheless I enjoyed the greater sophistication to the presentation compared to the Met Live series where a backstage host thrusts his or her microphone at anyone willing to talk.

Here Pappano spoke direct to the camera about the occasion and the story of the opera and introduced three previously recorded features about La bohème’s ‘Genius’, ‘Staging’ and ‘Music’. These were very informative and featured the young international principal singers (speaking in excellent English), director and conductor discussing their roles, Puccini, and the staging of the work. Unfortunately this pre-recorded material showed Villazón seemingly quite happy during rehearsals before succumbing to what Pappano described as the ‘occupational hazard’ of a singer performing in ‘our British winter’. His replacement Dmytro Popov is new to Rodolfo having been – by his own admission – ‘frightened’ by the top note of ‘Che gelida manina’ in Act I and previously cancelling his engagements for this role.

The accent was clearly on youth and it was no good a member of the technical staff reminiscing about John Copley’s 1974 staging having seen performers such as Kiri Te Kanawa, Angela Gheorghiu, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras appearing in it (many of whom I saw) when those we are hearing are not of that calibre. It was all a wonderful introduction to La bohème for the watching audiences in 800 cinemas in 21 countries at the reasonable prices they were being charged. My concern is that those in the Royal Opera House were being charged perhaps up to £175 to hear young singers no better or worse than you would hear in any touring company or college performance. Perhaps we might not like to always share the ‘Team America’ jingoism displayed by the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with their casts often heavily featuring home-grown talent but it is a wonder why there was not a British artist in one of the major roles. The cast we heard did not even have any Italians in it and featured two Ukrainians, a Serbian, a Latvian, a Norwegian and an Argentinian.

Truth-be-told they brought a typical youthful energy to the Bohemians’ antics and were thoroughly good company throughout the evening and if I had not seen – and  heard – better singers in each of the major roles they would all have been winning performances. It was clear that many watching had indeed been won over by them as there was immediate feedback from several enthusiastic tweets that were put up on the screen during the cinema interval and at the end from Dublin to Switzerland and several places in between.

Pappano told us that La bohème is ‘one of the shining masterpieces of the operatic canon’ and had been performed 597 times at Covent Garden. Sir Mark Elder, the conductor, reminded us about Puccini’s ‘naturalism’ and John Copley returning to this revival in its 38th year, revealed that he had ‘directed 85 operas and there are only 7 that don’t need any help … and La bohème is one of them’. The librettists’ source material was Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème and they selected four of the characteristic episodes and imbued them with the spirit of the original. Far too many people believe that a composer’s output evolves in isolation from their personal life and the world in which he or she lives, but this certainly was not the case for Puccini, yet another composer whose masterpieces are often biographical in nature. With La bohème there is the reminiscence of Puccini’s own student days, sharing a room in Milan with Mascagni, and probably recalling something about lost love too. Indeed his graduation exercise from the Milan Conservatoire, Capriccio sinfonico, is the first music we hear as the curtain rises for La bohème.

Certain elements of Puccini’s musical style help to confirm La bohème as the ‘masterpiece’ it genuinely is. Puccini appears more open to the concept of symphonic development of the German masters than other Italian opera composers (Verdi especially). Based on this idea, Act II has been considered the ‘scherzo’ and Act III the ‘slow movement’. There is a greater sense of La bohème and his other operas being ‘through-composed’ just as one might hear in a movement from a symphony. We know only too well that certain Puccini arias and ensembles can be taken out of their original context and performed on their own, yet the opera in full contains very little sense of having  ‘numbers’, as are found in Verdi’s operas up to Otello and Falstaff. Perhaps more importantly, Puccini used something called ‘thematic reminiscence’ that is not far removed from Wagner’s leitmotifs. Here in La bohème, there are themes associated with the bohemians and with Mimì, among others.

The success of John Copley’s staging lies in a sense of cinematic-style realism involving cast, chorus and extras (totalling 100 or so in Act II) aided and abetted by the meticulous research behind the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s ultra-faithful designs that were all very atmospheric in High Definition on the big Apollo Cinema screen.

As usual the singing and musical accompaniment is a little difficult to review in detail because I am not certain how it would have sounded in the opera house. The story was well captured by Kriss Russman’s direction for the screen and the young cast of singers had obviously listened to John Copley and there was spontaneity to events that you do not expect in the umpteenth revival. Dmytro Popov had a typical Slavic full-throated tenor voice with a slightly effortful high C that he was perhaps right to be wary of; I suspect he might sing more Otellos and Calafs than Rodolfos in the future. However he had a natural boyish charm that fitted the part well. Strangely he was often paler in complexion than his Mimì, Maija Kovalevska, whose singing sounded a little strident at times and was never Italianate enough. Nevertheless, she portrayed a reasonable sense of the great anxiety as to what life has in store for her character. Both singers sounded somewhat stentorian at times, but they brought some moments of tenderness to their ‘Addio, dolce svegliare’ in Act III. Stefania Dovhan was a very attractive Musetta and revealed some good comic timing and sang a reasonably solid ‘Quando m’en vo’. The most relaxed performer was David Bižić as Schaunard and was someone I would not mind seeing again. I did not warm to Audun Iversen’s Marcello or Nahuel Di Pierro’s Colline who did not have the gravitas for ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti’ that odd farewell to his coat in Act IV. British artists finally shone with masterly vignettes from Royal Opera stalwarts Jeremy White as the lascivious Benoit and Donald Maxwell as the cuckolded Alcindoro.

The Royal Opera House orchestra sounded fine under Sir Mark Elder but there seemed to be a certain indulgence in the tempi when it came to his young singers and that was only to be expected. Nevertheless there were many wonderful moments, particularly from the moment Rodolfo and Mimì are alone at last in Act IV through to the very sad ending that Pappano quite rightly said ‘always gets you’.

Jim Pritchard