Puccini: La boheme

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 12 October 2008 3 stars

La bohemeJohn Copley's production of Puccini's La boheme, now in its twenty-second revival at the Royal Opera House, is a bit like an old BBC costume drama. It's produced with care, it's directed with an eye for detail and it's a favourite with audiences, as the rapturous reception afforded to the first night of the current revival showed.

And yet, it's very much a product of its time. Opera production has moved on a long way since 1974 – not entirely for the better, I know, but after all these years Julia Trevelyan Oman's sets just seem so restrained, contrived and redolent of chocolate box innocence compared to the more challenging directions the genre has taken in the last few decades.

Every speck of dust has been carefully placed in the bohemians' garret, the grime applied liberally on the windows and the curtains studiously torn; at the Café Momus, we're treated to children dropping baskets of hay, glasses of wine being raised in the hands of nearly every character and all kinds of antics at the billiard table from Musetta; and it snows right on cue at appropriate places in the third act, but only a nice British theatre sort of snow, so as not to give offence in the way a thick Parisian blizzard might do. It's a good Saturday night at Covent Garden: the show has been tautly revived, and I must say I found it more immediate than Zeffirelli's Met production which I saw earlier in the year. But it's not exciting theatre and it's hard not to think that it might be time to move on.

La bohemeOne problem, of course, is that as respectable as the new cast is, it just doesn't come anywhere near to matching the big names who've appeared in the production before. Te Kanawa, Freni, Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Ricciarelli, and even more recent stars such as Gheorghiu, Villazon, Alvarez and Vargas have graced these sets. The present revival simply seems tame because it doesn't have the high voltage of these kinds of performers, even though there's nothing at all wrong with the singers.

Heading them up as Rodolfo is South Korean tenor Wookyung Kim, returning after his ROH debut in last year's revival of Rigoletto. Once more, his rich tone and relaxed stance make for a satisfying experience during the lyric moments, and there's a confident effortlessness about his performance that suits the role. Nevertheless, his ability in stagecraft is still rather limited, neither making love to Mimi with enough ardent passion nor emoting with sufficient desperation during the death scene, and this feeling of reserve sometimes carried into his singing, too.

La bohemeGreek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou was a recent replacement for another South Korean, Hei-Kyung Hong, who was to have sung the role of Mimi in a kind of 'Team Korea' casting of the leads (which might have worked very nicely). Voulgaridou knows the part well, having sung it in Berlin and Milan, and her vulnerable timbre is slightly reminiscent of Angela Gheorghiu's, albeit without the latter's lustre. She both sounds and looks the consumptive and has some nice moments, but at times during this performance she seemed overparted in the high-lying louder passages, and there wasn't much chemistry between her and her colleagues.

On the other hand, one of the most attractive elements of the cast is the joie de vivre of Rodolfo's friends, who stand out in their scenes. Christopher Maltman was luxury casting as Marcello, a multi-faceted creation in his hands that made one wish Puccini had focussed more on this character in the way that his rival Leoncavallo did in his opera of the same name. Alexander Vinogradov returned as Colline, excelling in making his aria a presentiment of the final death, and it was good to have another Brit, Roderick Williams, making such an impression as Schaunard. Jeremy White's Benoit is still a piece of comic genius, and Adrian Clarke's banter with Musetta – Anna Leese in a fine, if vocally unexciting portrayal – put his Alcindoro centre-stage.

Christian Badea's return to the company is nothing to be excited about: he needs to make everything bigger and more intense if the full extent of Puccini's creation is to be experienced. Such foursquare, unimaginative phrasing does neither singers nor orchestra any favours, and at times I longed to lose such a rigid sense of the barline. Nevertheless, Badea kept the co-ordination between pit and stage fairly strict, and it was a secure musical performance; all it needed, like the rest of the show, was an injection of life and imagination.

By Dominic McHugh

For more details see the ROH website.

Read an interview with Christopher Maltman about this production.

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