The indestructibility of La bohème is a double-edged sword. While the strength of Puccini's score – its pacing and melodic invention – can prevail in almost any circumstances, the work is such a sure-fire success in an opera house's repertory that there's not the same requirement to reinvigorate and reinvent it as there seems to be with almost every other work in the repertory, maybe with the exception of Tosca.
John Copley's 1974 production is only the second in The Royal Opera's history and is distinguished by cinematic realism and the now legendary attention to detail of the late Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs (Oman died in 2003). The production now even warrants an article in the programme, telling the story of its genesis and creation to sit beside articles on the opera itself.
Copley was on hand for this revival and had the unexpected last-minute task of reorganising his cast to accommodate an injured Roberto Aronica, only able to move with the aid of a walking stick. However, there was still more than a hint of routine at the Matinée performance I attended. Much of the rough and tumble between the four bohemians in their spacious garret was well choreographed and expertly delivered, especially before Musetta's arrival in the final act, but the scenes between Cristina Gallardo-Domas's over-acted Mimì and Aronica's stand-and-deliver Rodolfo were not as moving as they should have been, suffering, it seemed, from a lack of direction. Nor do I think that a fully fit Aronica would have brought much more to his portrayal of Rodolfo than he did here, given that his singing, although full-toned, was often distinctly graceless and lacking in charm. Gallardo-Domas's rather neurotic portrayal of Mimì removed some of the character's nobility and where her voice a few years ago had been remarkable for its appealing lyrical freedom, this quality seems to have developed adversely into a lack of focus and control. Although vocally she improved as the opera progressed and was affecting in her death-scene, too often the voice hardened or curdled under the pressure of singing above forte, while a lot of the quieter singing was too approximate and ill-defined. In the ensembles, both she and Aronica failed to blend in, often overpowering their colleagues.
Things picked up in the Second Act – where it's impossible not to be impressed by the detail of the designs – with the arrival of Nicole Cabell's Musetta. It's a role that's been in her repertoire a while and it showed. Acting with a sure sense of timing and a deft comic touch, she livened up the stage with her imaginative portrayal: her truly modern, scathing caricature of publicity-seeking self-obsession gave the production a dash of contemporary relevance missing elsewhere. There's a darkness to the voice that's unusual in a role often filled with brighter (or shriller) singers, and although she was drowned out a couple of times in the ensembles, what we heard was enough to suggest that Cabell's Mimì will be something to look forward to.
Franco Vassallo was making his Royal Opera debut as Marcello and although he sang reliably, like Aronica, there was a lack of vocal charm. Their Act Four duet, for example, relayed little of the sweetness of reminiscence that it describes. He acted well with his fellow artists, but the home-grown duo of Roderick Williams and former Young Artist Matthew Rose as Schaunard and Colline threatened to outshine their Italian colleagues. Williams was suave and charming, his smooth baritone a constant pleasure to listen to, and Rose made something three-dimensional out of his small role.
Of the remaining supporting cast, Jeremy White put in a good comic turn as Benoit in one of the most sharply directed scenes of the production, while a moustachioed Donald Maxwell made the most of the put-upon Alcindoro. Meanwhile, the stage band, chorus and actors all played their part in the chaotic, colourful spectacle of the second act.
Under conductor Christian Badea the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House produced some lovely moments – the lyrical outbursts such as the strings provide before 'O Mimì, tu più non torni' in particular – but for much of the performance the feeling of routine prevailed. There was some poor ensemble and, in the duets between Rodolfo and Mimì in particular, the balance between forward momentum and lyricism proved elusive: some passages sounded rushed, others dragged. Badea must also bear some responsibility for the lack of balance between principles in the important ensembles.
Needless to say, this Bohème will still leave the sell-out audiences satisfied and Puccini's score remains irresistible throughout. It's difficult not to feel, though, that a revival of a classic production should, ultimately, be just that, with more of a feeling of reinvigoration and rethinking than was on show here.
By Hugo Shirley
Read our recent interview with Nicole Cabell about her appearance in this production here.