United Kingdom Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Evelino Pidò (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 25.1.2024. (JPr)
La bohème was Puccini’s fourth opera for the stage; first put on in Turin in 1896, it was not an instant hit with the critics. The next year the Carl Rosa Company presented it in English at Manchester, and a few months later at Covent Garden. On 30 June 1899 it was sung there in Italian and thus became a staple of the repertory. That production basically survived two world wars until John Copley’s much-fêted and oft-revived staging in 1974 which was finally replaced by Richard Jones’s one in September 2017. I was in the opera house for its premiere and although I saw this La bohème in the cinema in 2022, this was the first time I had been back to Covent Garden to see it since then. Indeed, it had been about eighteen months since, for various reasons, I had sat and watched anything at Covent Garden. I was glad to be there for what was a throwback to those special evenings on Bow Street in (younger) days gone by which made you go back there time and again.
The librettists’ source material was Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème and they selected four of the episodes and imbued them with the spirit of the original. Although set in Paris about 1830, the story is a timeless one with considerable contemporary resonances. The introduction in the programme reminds us how the opera ‘deals with the humble predicaments of ordinary flawed humans: poverty, creative failures, selfishness and domestic breakdown. Against this is the intoxicating but pitiless backdrop of a materialistic society […] No wonder that not having – money, food, health – proves terminally disastrous.’
In November it will be the centenary of Puccini’s death and the Royal Opera’s commemorations have begun with thirteen performances of La bohème with three different casts of principals and two conductors. Puccini is one of those composers whose masterpieces can be considered biographical in nature and here there is the recollection of the composer’s own student days – sharing a room in Milan with Pietro Mascagni (of Cavalleria rusticana fame) – and no doubt recalling something about lost love too. Intriguingly Puccini’s graduation exercise from the Milan Conservatoire, Capriccio sinfonico, is the music we hear first as the curtain rises.
With La bohème Puccini appears more open to the concept of symphonic development than other Italian opera composers, especially Verdi: Act II can be considered the ‘scherzo’ and Act III the ‘slow movement’. Puccini also uses something called ‘thematic reminiscence’ which is not far removed from Wagner’s leitmotifs. Here in La bohème, we have themes associated with the bohemians and with Mimì, among others. Also, we should experience the opera as being more ‘through-composed’ than we are used to. However, we know only too well that certain arias and duets from La bohème can be taken out of their original context and performed on their own, and my only (mild) criticism of this performance was the conductor Evelino Pidò’s need to stop time and again for applause.
Back in the mid-1990s I chaired an event when Richard Jones was asked what his controversial Covent Garden Ring of that time was all about and his rejoinder was ‘Well, what does it mean to you?’ When similarly quizzed in 2017 about whether his La bohème was ‘traditional’ his reply was – and yes, you’ve might have guessed it – ‘Please can you tell me what traditional means?’
This is a very snowy La bohème and some falls gently down onto the stage minutes before the first note of music is heard. The bohemians I saw brought a lot of energy to their antics; though it is never entirely clear what draws them to designer Stewart Laing’s extraordinarily sparsely furnished and undecorated Scandinavian-style timber frame ‘garret’. There is nothing in it, it seems, other than one chair, an old tea chest, a small heating stove, a dirty pillow, blanket and rug, as well as a ladder up through the roof. There is no easel for Marcello and any ‘painting’ is mimed. This is one of only a few diversions from ‘traditional’ which includes a lot of singing facing out to the audience. There is also little chance of not finding Mimì’s missing key as when the candles go out the room remains brightly lit!
Act II is where all the money went: there are three huge glass-roofed shopping galleries with all manner of delights pushed and pulled into position showing Paris in the 1880s. In typical Richard Jones fashion it all quickly becomes overcrowded and everyone is crammed into a small space across the front of the stage. More muscle power is needed to change what we see into the Café Momus crammed with tables. Everything is in straight lines and the bohemians, Mimì, Musetta and Alcindoro are all in the first row facing out to the audience once again. A lot of the familiar happenings gets lost in all the bustling activity and it is difficult to spot the leading characters at times. However, there is no problem at all noticing Musetta removing her French knickers to enrage her rich admirer, Alcindoro, and make her former lover, Marcello, jealous!
Act III takes place on a snow-covered bare stage with a single brazier and what looks like a prefabricated wooden tavern. This is where Marcello is ‘shacked up’ with Musetta whilst he is painting the outside and she is ‘entertaining’ the customers. As Rodolfo and Mimì agree to stay together until Spring the small building retreats diagonally across the stage. This is a nice touch and is as if the couple are trying to distance themselves from real life and Mimì’s impending fate. As we know only too well, she is dying of tuberculosis. And expire she does at the end of a final act played out fairly straightforwardly again, though when the bohemians amuse themselves it is not with cod dancing – in all senses of the word since Colline brings in a small fish – though by graffitiing their apartment. Having briefly revived Traviata-like, Mimì dies on the floor with her head propped up on the stove.
Evelino Pidò conducted Puccini’s evocative and romantic score with its soaring melodies assuredly and fluidly (in the main) and he was well-supported by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, as well as the reliable and boisterous chorus and assorted children. Tempi only sagged a little for Angela Gheorghiu’s Mimì otherwise this La bohème flew by at a cracking pace.
It is almost two years since I saw the Romanian pairing of Angela Gheorghiu and Stefan Pop in Tosca at Covent Garden and I wrote about Pop how ‘he looks a lot like a young Luciano Pavarotti, proved himself to be a (similarly) convincing actor with an easy-going manner onstage’ and how he ‘would be welcome back to Covent Garden any time’. Welcome, on this occasion, Pop certainly was for an ardent Rodolfo: his voice is robust – and with almost Wagnerian heft – but he can pare his sound down for some exquisite phrases and expressive use of text.
Not for the first time in my experience, Angela Gheorghiu made a rather tentative and underpowered start to her performance, and she possibly will have made more impact with ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ in earlier years. From then on, she improved no end and her signature rich and darkly tinged lyric soprano proved little changed from those times I have heard Gheorghiu since her famous Violetta for Sir Georg Solti at Covent Garden in 1994 which propelled her to stardom. There was excellent chemistry with her Rodolfo which can only come from having sung together a number of times before. Gheorghiu shaped several of Puccini’s phrases exquisitely and Mimì’s death was as affecting as I can remember it because of the incredible way her final word ‘dormire’ (sleep) faded into nothingness (unique in my experience).
Having to fight her way through the crowd in Act II, Simona Mihal was again Musetta as she was in 2017. Milhal’s vibrant personality and attractive voice again showed Musetta as sassy, spirited and promiscuous at the beginning but suitably caring at the end when her Act IV prayer was sung with great sincerity. Andrey Zhilikhovsky was a charismatic Marcello, and he sang strongly if without much warmth for Puccini. Zoltan Nagy was a lively Schaunard and Michael Mofidian a resonant and dour Colline and they did as well as they could with what little Puccini gives them. This extended to the cameos from the returning Jeremy White and Wyn Pencarreg as, respectively, the irascible Benoît and duped Alcindoro whose characters are also mere ciphers in La bohème.
Director – Richard Jones
Revival Director – Simon Iorio
Designer – Stewart Laing
Lighting designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Movement director – Sarah Fahie
Revival Movement director – Danielle Urbas
Chorus director – William Spaulding
Marcello – Andrey Zhilikhovsky
Rodolfo – Stefan Pop
Colline – Michael Mofidian
Schaunard – Zoltan Nagy
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Angela Gheorghiu
Parpignol – Nicholas Sharratt
Musetta – Simona Mihai
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg
Customs Officer – Dominic Barrand
Sergeant – Thomas Barnard