02 May 2012

La bohème, Royal Opera House, London

A robust Mimì and a self-regarding Rodolfo impart a distinctive flavour to this full-throttled version of John Copley’s evergreen La bohème.

This latest revival of Copley’s vintage 1974 production of La bohème has an anniversary quality. It is the 25th time it has been presented, and, remarkably, it marks the 50th anniversary of Copley’s first employment as a director at the Royal Opera House. Copley was presented with a cake at the end of the performance.

Anniversaries or not, I have mixed feelings about the endless revivals of safe, classic productions. On one hand it is impossible not to feel that they cramp experiment and exploration (Leoncavallo’s La bohème, anyone?) and give opera-going the air of a familiar, timid ritual.

On the other hand, it is hard to deny that they boast strong claims to be essential viewing for anyone who loves opera, and that they set the benchmarks against which more daring productions should be measured. Copley’s Bohème is the sort of production which gets remembered as a “good, old-fashioned” one and engenders warm feelings of recognition, conveying the impression that it is timeless and somehow authentic. It succeeds wonderfully well because it puts itself entirely at the service of the opera, translating Puccini’s imagined world into vivid and memorable stage pictures.

The general style of Copley’s production, matching that of Puccini’s score, might be described as rose-tinted realism with a rich vein of humour. The different worlds of the bohemians’ attic, the Café Momus and the Barrière d’Enfer are patiently and lovingly assembled in a way which paradoxically conveys both historical verisimilitude and a sense of romantic enchantment. This is the nineteenth-century Paris we all wish to believe in, not least for its potent ability to mythologize itself. Despite the many references to cold and poverty, there is no doubting its basic allure: better to be cold and poor there than warm and comfortable in many another city. This latest incarnation of the production was notable for power and passion rather than poetry and pathos. The gentleman in the next seat, a veteran opera-goer who informed me he had been coming to the Royal Opera since 1953, complained that it was “can belto rather than bel canto” and left at the first interval. That was harsh, indeed unfair, but not completely devoid of point. Such criticism would focus primarily on Carmen Giannattasio’s robust Mimì, who only seemed frail and consumptive at the very end (even then more in the acting than in the sounding), and in the earlier acts appeared impervious to the cold. The great Mimìs are able to suggest that every high note comes at a heavy price to ruined lungs, and much of the glory and pathos of the role turns on the recognition that she is prepared to pay that price, choosing intensity of living over the sort of calm, sensible existence her doctor would recommend. In this sense Giannattasio was a disappointment, and her performance musically impressive rather than truly moving.

LA-BOHEME-10166_0801.gifNuccia Focile as Musetta, Fabio Capitanucci as Marcello, Carmen Giannattasio as Mimi and Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo

There is really only one way to play Mimì, but Rodolfo is susceptible to a variety of interpretations. Joseph Calleja did occasionally give the impression that he was mainly there for the purple passages when his beautifully clear, heroic-sounding voice could be unleashed to thrill the house, but that is dramatically acceptable if one thinks of Rodolfo as something of a poseur, in love with the whole idea of being a poet. In fact Calleja’s representation was internally consistent, and carried off with many deft strokes of acting. His wonderfully helpless look when Mimì expressed her wish for a muff appeared as much a comment on the misfortune of poets in an ungrateful world as on any frustrated longing he may have had to relieve her sufferings. He was, in short, not the sort of Rodolfo that one especially feels for, but it was impossible not to enjoy his performance. Perhaps a more heart-melting Mimì would have brought out greater depths in his representation.

One of the delights of seeing opera at Covent Garden is the assurance that secondary parts are almost always cast incredibly well. The latest La bohème is no disappointment. Fabio Capitanucci was the best Marcello I’ve ever seen, looking and acting the part consummately well. His secret seemed to be simply to embrace the part as though he were the hero of the opera. I was vividly reminded of one of the items on my operatic wish list: alternating productions of the Puccini and Leoncavallo Bohèmes with the same singers taking the same roles. Capitanucci as Marcello would be a perfect starting point for the project. Matthew Rose as Colline and Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard were equally outstanding, and made up a very strong quartet , conveying a natural sense of tried and tested camaraderie. Rose’s fourth act address to his old coat was a beautifully judged piece of singing, and one of the highlights of the evening — almost as moving, dare I say it, as Giannattasio’s dying agonies.

David Chandler

LA-BOHEME-10166_0181.gifFabio Capitanucci as Marcello, Carmen Giannattasio as Mimi, Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo, Matthew Rose as Colline and Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard