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Richard Jones’ <em>La bohème</em> at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
13 Sep 2017

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Richard Jones’ La bohème at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Simona Mihai (Musetta)

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Even before curtain-up, the gently falling snow was sparkling against the black night sky of late-nineteenth century Paris. This is a production which strives to balance ‘realism’ with romance: exquisite design details create verisimilitude, while the visible mechanisms of theatre serve to remind us that we are voyeurs. Occasionally, there are ‘slippages’, as when the candles ‘go out’ in Act 1 but the interior set remains flooded in light as Mimì and Rodolpho scrabble around ‘in the dark’ looking for her keys. But, when the tables of the plush Café Momus push the front-facing diners to the front of the stage, or the duets of Act 3 are repeatedly directed ‘at us’ - through the fourth wall - a distance is established which creates tenderness and poignancy.

Rodolfo and Mimi Act 1.jpg Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Nicole Car (Mimì). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Jones tells the story straight. Act 1 takes us into the eaves of the bohemians’ garret - brutally cross-sectioned in its barren bleakness: a paint-splattered chair and tiny three-legged stool, a cheap violin case, some paint pots and brushes, a brazier which will be fuelled by Rodolfo’s pulped play-script. A ladder protrudes through the skylight which admits the fairy-tale conical moon-beam conjured by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin.

The attic atelier swivels and recedes but remains a shadowy presence in Acts 2 and 3, as Laing whisks us - and the vibrantly attired Christmas Eve revellers - through the glittering arcades of the Quartier Latin to the up-market Café Momus, and finally to the unwelcoming toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer, through which pedlars enter the city and beside which we witness the contrasting couples’ squabbles and sweet-talk, as winter presages spring.

Act 2 Arcades Catherine Ashmore.jpg Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Some of Jones’ and Laing’s scene shifts have the beguiling enchantment of a Christmas ballet. Money has obviously been lavished on Act 2, and the dazzling lights of the triplet of arcades lure the merrymakers into the parfumerie, cave de vin and Salon de société, before swivelling to make way for the stuccoed-ceiling Café - down-at-heel would-be artists certainly couldn’t afford the cover charge let alone the champagne, so it’s no surprise Alcindoro has to pick up the tab. Later, the Café itself divides and diverges, casting its diners into the night street, where lamplight sentinels illuminate the scarlet splendour of a passing military band.

Act 3’s bare street and isolated tatty tavern emphasises the gaping expanse between love and fulfilment, hope and reality. This is confirmed at the close of the act, when the tavern slides almost imperceptibly across the stage into the blackness, and reinforced by the stab of green light which accompanies the brutal closing chords of Act 3. Act 4 takes us back to the austere attic, where the horse-play has a desperate air as the boys graffiti the beams and bare walls à la Picasso. The light now seems, painfully and ironically, to shine even brighter. But, the shadows cast by the attic beams darken, creating a criss-crossing chiaroscuro which hides the mourners lined against the rear wall, while the dying Mimì is thrust to the fore, into the light.

MICHAEL FABIANO, LUCA TITTOTO, MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ, FLORIAN SEMPEY © ROH. PHOTO CATHERINE ASHMORE.jpg Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Luca Tittoto (Colline), Mariusz Kwiecień (Marcello), Florian Sempey (Schaunard). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Though she was dressed like Jane Eyre in an ugly grey frock, and later given a hideous pink bonnet by Rodolfo, Australian soprano Nicole Car was an impetuous Mimì - her bounds of energy matched by bursts of lyricism and vocal bloom. She phrased sensitively and displayed a pure, even tone across the registers. Perhaps a little more variety of vocal colour might have helped to fill out the character, and the same was true for Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo, who seemed oddly self-absorbed at times - the prone Mimì got a kick rather than a glass of water in Act 1, and this Rodolfo was keener to be consoled by Marcello than to cradle the dying girl in his arms. Fabiano’s tenor was strong and true - ‘Che gelida manina’ won cheers and applause - but needed a little more softness and flexibility to convince that Rodolfo’s heart ruled his head. The ‘supporting’ pair were superb. Mariusz Kwiecień was spared the straggly wigs inflicted on the other men and his characterisation of Marcello also seemed to have more freedom and complexity; his Act 3 duet with Mimì was wonderfully moving. Simona Mihai will take over as Mimì later in the run but here she was a show-stealing Musetta, climbing sassily onto the tables to deliver her risqué waltz - during which she removed her silk knickers to taunt the sulking Marcello - but showing genuine care and compassion in the final act.

MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AND NICOLE CAR.jpgMariusz Kwiecień (Marcello) and Nicole Car (Mimì). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

The rest of the cast sang well but needed more direction from Jones to really make their mark. Florian Sempey’s Schaunard and Luca Tittoto’s Colline sometimes seemed a bit ‘lost’, disappearing into the recesses of the garret, and the boisterous larking about with herring and crayons in Act 4 felt somewhat forced. Wyn Pencarreg’s Alcindoro was a sober figure and Act 2 was thus shorn of some of its fun. And, I must have blinked as I missed the toy-seller Parpignol, though the children of Tiffin School chanted and clamoured brightly.

Antonio Pappano swept things along with characteristic vigour and vitesse but while the bursts of orchestral colour were certainly impassioned and thrilling, after a while it felt a bit too ‘full-on’ and it would have been nice to have time to take in some of the details and subtleties.

However, despite a few small quibbles I enjoyed this performance immensely. John Copley’s La bohème, which has finally been retired, had an astonishingly long life and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones’ production isn’t similarly enduring.

Claire Seymour

Puccini: La bohème

Mimì - Nicole Car, Rodolfo - Michael Fabiano, Marcello - Mariusz Kwiecień, Musetta - Simona Mihai, Schaunard - Florian Sempey, Colline - Luca Tittoto, Benoît - Jeremy White, Alcindoro - Wyn Pencarreg; Parpignol (A toyseller) - Andrew Macnair, Customs Officer - John Morrissey, Sergeant - Thomas Barnard; Director - Richard Jones, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Associate director - Elaine Kidd, Designer - Stewart Laing, Lighting designer - Mimi Jordan Sherin, Movement director - Sarah Fahie, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House (Chorus director, William Spaulding).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 11th September 2017.

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