Time to Pension Off Covent Garden’s Current  La bohème?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Extra Chorus, Members of Tiffin Children’s Chorus, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Cornelius Meister (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 9.7.2014 (MB)

Marcello – Markus Werba
Rodolfo – Charles Castronovo
Colline – Jongmin Park
Schaunard – Daniel Grice
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Ermonela Jaho
Parpignol – Luke Price
Musetta – Simona Mihai
Alcindoro – Donald Maxwell
Customs Officer – Christopher Lackner
Sergeant – Bryan Secombe
John Copley (director)
Julia Trevelyan Oman (designs)
John Charlton (lighting)


Perhaps I have made life too difficult for myself; it would not necessarily be the first time. At any rate, since the last time I saw John Copley’s production of La bohème – it had actually been my first, something that certainly was not the case for much of the Royal Opera House’s audience – I have seen on DVD Stefan Herheim’s brilliant staging of the work for the Norwegian National Opera. This is a typically musical production which transforms one’s understanding of the work – or at least of the possibilities it offers – resolutely avoiding the slightest hint of sentimentality, and instead tackling head on difficult realities of life, death, and memory.

Herheim’s Bohème is perhaps bound to make many others suffer by comparison. That is not, of course, to say that every production should be like it, or indeed that any production should attempt to imitate it, but that it marks a turning-point in the reception of La bohème, and that as venerable a staging as this, even when revived in lively fashion by the original director, is perhaps more likely than before to have one feel that something is missing – or at least that it is going to require especially outstanding performances to make it live as once it might have done.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House offered a predictable trump card, rarely if ever putting a foot – or bow – wrong, playing Puccini’s score with an assuredness that never toppled over into over-familiarity. Cornelius Meister’s conducting of the orchestra receives more of a mixed report. In its favour, there was a great deal of care taken to characterise individual scenes, moods, and even lines. This was certainly not a routine reading. However, a longer line often proved elusive, partly because it was not clear how individual sections fitted together. Contrast is good but still more important is the underlying unity. An opening scene took almost anti-Romantic jauntiness to excess, whilst declarations of affection – or their approach – often became a spur to indulgence.  Perhaps Meister’s is a conception that will tighten as the run proceeds; there was an undoubted intelligence to be heard. A few shaky moments of ensemble aside, he seemed eminently capable of drawing from the orchestra and his cast what he wanted.

Ermonela Jaho’s Mimì was beautifully, often passionately sung, drawing upon a splendid array of vocal colours, generally – if perhaps not always – with a dramatic point in mind. Alas, her acting abilities lagged behind; there was far too much of the stock gesture, which might have worked better in certain other Puccini operas, but which seemed both over the top and non-specific in this would-be Bohemian milieu. Bar an uncertain top – at one point in the first act, quite alarmingly so – Charles Castronovo showed himself to be an adept Puccini singer and actor. When I have heard him in Mozart, I have thought his style perilously close to Puccini; here, he seemed very much at home. Markus Werba offered a typically intelligent reading of Marcello, attentive to the words in a way that not all of his colleagues were. Simona Mihai’s Musetta was somewhat generalised in scope, not assisted by Copley’s insistence upon comedy in the second act. Jongmin Park’s deep bass Colline was beautifully sung, though it sounded at times a little close to the world of Boris Godunov. Luke Price’s Parpignol struggled a little too much in vocal terms. However, the choral singing was excellent.

Back, then, to staging, in conclusion. Copley’s production, perhaps above all Julia Trevelyan Oman evocative period designs, has done sterling service. However, I could not help but wonder whether the endless ‘activity’, especially during the second act, spoke a little too much of trying to breathe new life into something that has already had a very good innings. It has endured and delighted far longer than any production could possibly expect to do so. But now, as the Royal Opera has apparently realised, its era is drawing to a close. It will be back next year, but then, at last, there will be a new staging. What a pity, though, that, if only for a season in between, we could not have had Herheim’s probing, transformative drama brought to London. Something for the ENO to consider……?

Mark Berry

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