Illusion stripped: La bohème at the ROH
Royal Opera House
Standing Stalls Circle D 33, £16
13 September 2017
Hindsight makes me realize how ambitious a choice it was to select Richard Jones to replace the Royal Opera's much loved John Copley production of La bohème. Jones's productions have been so acclaimed that he's attained a 'can do no wrong' aura – that's not the ambitious part. It's that he wants to pop the bubble of illusion that is an essential part of opera. This works well when the composer was arguably doing that too (Lady Macbeth, Gloriana, Boris Godunov), and even when the composer seemed to want the opposite (Suor Angelica). Can La bohème survive such scrutiny? Does it matter if it can't?
Jones turns a cold, hard gaze on Rodolfo – but not an unsympathetic one. He sees Rodolfo as bit of a lad, not the charming, loveable lad Rodolfo usually is but one that is far less pleasant and far more believable. It's not the meeting of soulmates between him and Mimì but more of a passing fancy that turns into a habit. This also is more believable. Rodolfo and his posse are not people I'd like to be friends with but are annoyingly yobbish – also more believable. All this is achieved through subtle changes that (almost) never contradict the libretto. Nor do they precisely contradict the music; but as Puccini waxes romantic Jones tugs at your sleeve, whispering 'yes, but imagine what it would really be like'.
This approach enhances the tragedy in Suor Angelica, where grim reality becomes more horrible in juxtaposition with Puccini's beatific music. For some people it probably has a similar effect in La bohème, but for me it kind of killed it. The story is so slight that when you demote Rodolfo and Mimì's love from something operatic to something ordinary the whole collapses. Which is not to say I wasn't upset by the ending, given how much I was uninvolved right until the very end I wonder if that response was simply directly due to the music. It will be interesting to see how the production changes when it's revived.
And indeed when it has a different cast. I was astounded by Michael Fabiano's Lensky and had perhaps excessively high hopes for his Rodolfo. These have been somewhat dashed. He's still loud but I'm afraid to say unpleasantly coarse, and certainly too much for Nicole Car's lovely but small voice. I'm tempted to attribute this in part to Rodolfo's recharacterization in this production; I guess comparison with Fabiano's Duke of Mantua later in the Royal Opera season will be the acid test. Mariusz Kwicien as Marcello is the stand-out performer, and Simona Mihae's delightful Musetta leads the rest of the strong cast. I fear I in no way got the most out of Pappano and the orchestra's performance, given my baffled position in the Stalls Circle (whyyy do I always go there), but what I heard was, as expected, impassioned and eager.
Turns out I enjoyed the cinema broadcast on 3 October a whole lot more. I think the main factors in this were: different expectations; not being in the Stalls Circle (I've got to change my ways); and being able to see the singers' faces.
It's not surprising that a lot of Jones's work with the singers was too subtle to register to the back of the Stalls Circle but it is still annoying. My impression of Fabiano's Rodolfo in the cinema was entirely different from in the theatre. Yes, it really was love at first sight; yes, he really couldn't cope with the depth of their love; yes, he is destroyed by Mimì's death. The transformation was greatest with Rodolfo but in all characters there was a far softer, kinder directorial reading than I'd experienced when seeing it from further back.
It's not all fixed by the cinema. Act III's sheepishly shifting shed is still a major vibe killer. The naughty graffiti in Act IV is still a distraction, all singers other than Kwiecien seeming very embarrassed by it. And even with the broadcast's level balancing, Nicole Car is still on the quiet side. But I was appropriately moved, by that flimsy story, by the superb singing of Kwiecien and this time Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta, and by the impassioned, precise and exquisitely lyrical playing of the orchestra under Pappano.
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