Bye bye Bohème

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

So, it begins: the last run of Covent Garden’s production of La Bohème by John Copley, originally premiered during the period of electricity cuts and the 3-day week in 1974 – in fact, on the eve of Edward Heath asking for a dissolution of Parliament for the February 1974 General Election. In contrast 2015’s final revival saw ample full-on star-wattage blazing, albeit distractingly at times, from the two lead performers. In the meantime, the production showed its steadfast muted colours by carrying the the story with convincing straightforwardness. Nice though it was to see it a last time, I confess myself ready for something with rather more insight.

Given my lack of success in seeing her on the Covent Garden stage in the past, it was pleasing to note that Anna Netrebko was indeed present – and then some. As the evening progressed the celebrity sheen was slowly dimmed in favour of her genuine acting talents. Vocally as well, she seemed to ‘free up’ as the performance went on, after a first act in which her vocal voluptuousness threatened to tip over into an excessively mezzo-ish tone with stodgy consonants. Nonetheless, she won me back over as she stood behind the tumbril in act 3 and reacted most movingly to Rodolfo’s changing explanations of why he had left her. At the close, she anchored the death scene with her stillness, matching her vocal beauty to the failing health of the character.

As Rodolfo, Joseph Calleja sang with his usual confidence, beauty and power. Along with Netrebko, it’s a voice that is effortless to enjoy. I would, however, have liked it injected with a bit more of the character’s vulnerability. Beautiful, impressive as it was, there wasn’t a great deal of vocal character development as the drama progressed. But with this kind of singing quality on display, maybe I’m being picky, and should just have revelled in the beautiful sounds.

As Musetta, Jennifer Rowley had her debut, and it was a winning one. She vamped and sassed her way around act 2’s café, hurled out her act 3 insults at Marcello with gleeful abandon, and sang her prayer in act 4 with tear-inducing beauty. Lucas Meachem was an effective Marcello, and Marco Vinco bid farewell to his old coat touchingly. All the smaller roles made vivid contributions.

The major problem with this revival lay with the conductor. Dan Ettinger has previously conducted La Traviata at Covent Garden, and I noted then that the dynamic extremes which he seems to favour could be a dangerous strategy. So it proved in this Bohème: the first act in particular appeared to be holding together by the skin of its teeth, with both Netrebko and Calleja seeming to want to push on faster than Ettinger in their respective ‘big numbers’, resulting in a number of audible departures where orchestral instruments were doubling the vocal line. This could, of course, be first night tensions that will settle as the run continues.  However, Ettinger’s tendency to arrive at the approach to a ‘big number’ and slam on the brakes became very irritating. Ahead of O Mimì, tu più non torni in act 4 – gorgeously sung by Calleja – there was a pause of absurd length. This eroded the musical structure of the acts, which are so important to the cumulative power of the work. On the plus side, and again I echo my comments on his Traviata, there were some remarkable colours highlighted in the orchestral accompaniment, and in this case the closing passage was bravely played for pathos rather than melodrama – those stabbing chords that accompany Rodolfo’s realisation of Mimì’s death were more muted than usual. Overall, though, I think greater power could have been achieved in this revival with a conductor that took a rather less mannered approach.

And so, we look to the next production. Will it be a rearrangement of the furniture and a light dusting (à la Jonathan Kent’s Tosca) or a radical departure guaranteed to inundate the letters page of Opera magazine? Well, given it’s in the hands of Richard Jones (scheduled for 2017), I think we can be confident that it will be a more thoughtful departure than the ‘conventional v2.0’ of Tosca: at any rate, we can be relatively certain that the wallpaper in the garret will be a shade more jazzy…

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