As old as me, John Copley’s production of La Bohème creaked its way onto the Covent Garden stage for another outing. There’s no denying it’s extraordinarily effective, even if the more jaded amongst us might wish for the refreshing tonic of a new production. Then again, bearing in mind the ROH’s choice for a Rusalka production, it’s probably best we stick with this for the foreseeable.
Overall, the evening was an odd affair. Some tremendous performances, but an overall feeling of slight unease. Most of this I would put down to Semyon Byckhov’s analytical approach to the score, which brought a wealth of beautiful and arresting detail to the fore, but also slowed it down to a degree that lent the whole enterprise a slightly nervy, tentative feel. Everyone seemed a little on edge, and a bit off cue, for the first two acts. By Act 3, things settled down, and Act 4 was extraordinary.
So, I would emphasise that I didn’t find Bychkov’s style entirely problematic. The measured but vivid closing passages to Act 4 were probably amongst the most gripping that I’ve heard, with painful pauses from which the tragedy could well up – such as just before, and in the wake of, the piercing chords that signal Mimì’s death. Generally, as tragedy replaced light-hearted comedy, Bychkov’s tempi and dynamic choices became more effective. The first half was, nonetheless, a little odd.
The Rodolfo of Joseph Calleja was a big-voiced, demonstrative, Italianate affair and he was rightly cheered to the rafters at the curtain. It was a consistent, effortless vocal portrayal, partnered with straightforward, unfussy but effective acting. Mimì was Carmen Giannattasio, standing in (with good notice) for Celine Byrne, who was herself standing in (with even better notice) for Anja Harteros. Her path largely mirrored that of Bychkov: her portrayal missed some ethereal ‘smile’ in the first act, but built to a devastating portrait of our heroine as the tragedy of love and disease took their toll. They played off each other wonderfully.
Madeleine Pierard also stood in, this time for an ailing Nuccia Focile. Act 2 seemed a little bumpy, perhaps nervy, at first – although it seemed that way for everyone, and I speculate about the impact of Bychkov’s rather wilful dynamics on such a difficult ensemble scene. However, she eased into the coquettish antics with great charm, and was tremendous in the latter two acts, where her distress and tenderness towards Mimì added considerably to the overall pathos of Act 4. The men all made for a fantastic ensemble, with Fabio Capitanucci as Marcello, Yuri Vorobiev (bidding touching farewell to his coat) as Colline, and Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard. Donald Maxwell and Jeremy White deserve mention as quality-casting for Alcindoro and Benoît.
So, certainly a revival of this old warhorse production that cannot be faulted for a lack of interest. The oddities were more than compensated for by the more successful aspects. Something tells me the late June re-runs with the supposedly ‘stellar’ cast will be less interesting, even if there are elements that are more conventionally successful. If the ROH can keep pulling out refreshing casts and approaches to the piece, this old trouper of a production can continue to dust its charm over the audience for some time to come. If the revivals become something more routine (and let’s not forget another 15-performance, multiply-cast run is due next season) then I’ll have to go back to wanting something new…