Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Puccini - La Bohème (London, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Royal Opera House, London - 2018

Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car, Mariusz Kwiecien, Simona Mihai, Florian Sempey, Luca Tittoto, Jeremy White, Wyn Pencarreg, Andrew Macnair, John Morrisey, Thomas Barnard

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

There's no other work of opera that hits you emotionally the way La Bohème does, and that's something you don't want to lose with an inappropriate stage production that sucks the life out of it. The challenge of finding a replacement for John Copley's long-running 40 year old production at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden then is not without considerable risk, as its production design and tone has become inextricably entwined with the opera and even seared into the consciousness of several generations of opera goers.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. The genius of Puccini's musical composition and arrangements goes far beyond the mere tugging of heart strings. It's a model of precision that captures a variety of tones and moods, celebrating the spirit of youthful endurance through deprivation and set-backs, of young love and maturity of sentiments, of facing up to changes including the ever-present reality and inevitability of death. It is a serious work, a great work that speaks for itself.

A stage production doesn't really need to do too much to illustrate that any further, and it often seems like Copley's production captured the essence of the work and retained a freshness while Zeffirelli's similarly long-standing production, for example, now looks tired and overwrought. No matter how enduring or suitable the production, La Bohème can always do with a bit of a refresh, even if it's just to take the predictability out of it. And, essentially, that's really all Richard Jones's new production does. Whether it improves on the old production is debatable - although I can't imagine many would think so - but it does highlight new parts of the work that might be lost through over-familiarity.

The locations remain much the same and are instantly recognisable, if a little more minimally stylised in design, which is not surprising since it's a Richard Jones production. The garret in Act I is sparsely furnished, its furnishings presumably gone the same way in earlier occasions as Rodolfo's play - into the furnace to heat the place. Narrow wooden beams bear down on the limited roof-space, a small door leading into it and a skylight above. Its bohemian artist inhabitants do indeed look like scruffy artists in second-hand clothes that may once have been smart, with long hair and unkempt beards. No hipsters here, thank goodness.

Act II is also refreshing for its move away from the traditional French street cafe depiction of Cafe Momus for a rather more obviously upmarket posh restaurant. Once outside of the garret however it also becomes clear that Richard Jones's production has also done away with 1840's Paris Commune setting for a location that is a little more generalised, but certainly evokes the nearby Covent Garden market in some kind of idealised Quality Street box way. It's a little bland, but functional and it doesn't get in the way of the musical performance, which since it's Puccini under Antonio Pappano, means it's in very capable hands, and indeed, Acts I and II are everything they should be; urgently, sweepingly romantic, playful and lyrical.

That also makes up for the lack of imagination shown in the designs for Acts III and IV. Really, Act III is just a stripped-back version of the familiar cold night outside a warm lively tavern scene, with a stage bare but for falling snow and a cardboard-box looking tavern, albeit with Marcello's wall paintings displayed on the outside (which at least shows he can paint, something that the invisible canvas in Act I and his crude stick figure drawings in Act IV don't really get across). The tavern slowly sliding into the background by itself however as the Act progresses just looks weird.

If it still works reasonably well in Act III and on its return to the even more bare garret room (it must have gotten quite cold again) in Act IV it's got a lot to do with Pappano's musical direction but also the performances of the singers. And to be fair Richard Jones's direction of the performances is also good and undoubtedly an important contributing factor to the production still working effectively as a whole. It's not the most adventurous La Bohème, but even La Fura dels Baus didn't feel like they could do much with it and let's not even get into Claus Guth's bohemians in space misfire. Only Stefan Herheim has really been able to bring a completely new approach to in his Den Norske production, deconstructing the opera, exposing its workings and revealing it as the musically impressive and emotionally harrowing masterpiece that we already know it is.

Essentially however La Bohème reinvents itself every time you bring fresh new voices in to reinterpret the work and there's an impressive line-up here. Michael Fabiano's Rodolfo is a revelation. He's a great singer that brings something new and distinctive to a role every time I've seen him, even in the most familiar roles (Alfredo in La Traviata, Don José in Carmen). His Rodolfo is superb; relaxed and confident, charming in humour and persuasive in his romantic intentions towards Mimi; there's a sweetness also in his voice and impeccable delivery that is just irresistible. Nicole Car is perhaps a bit too energetic and full of life as Mimi after her cough and stumble on his doorstep, but just as the music and character develop, so too does the emotional charge between the two of them in the final two acts. The ending is of course devastating.

Links: Royal Opera House