Pipe down Rodolfo! Magnificent Mimi triumphs over the antiseptic bohemians
By the time it was finally retired in 2015, the Royal Opera’s previous production of La Bohème, crammed with detail and affectionately directed by John Copley, had become a cherished institution, notching up 25 revivals in its 41-year history. The odds are that its replacement, directed by Richard Jones with sets and costumes by Stewart Laing, won’t last quite as long, but it has clearly been designed for permanence – an uncontroversial mainstream staging that can be brought back again and again without the danger of anyone tiring of it. In fact what Jones and Laing have come up with isn’t a million miles away from the show that it has replaced.
Perhaps the verismo world of 19th-century Paris that Puccini creates for Bohème really does resist deconstruction, other than straightforward cosmetic translations into more modern settings. This production doesn’t even opt for that, but takes the original as a given, without any friction or attempts at stylisation at all. The bohemians’ stripped down garret of the outer acts may be historically neutral, but the lavish setting for the second act, complete with arcades, a swanky restaurant interior and Christmas Eve crowds who look as though they’ve just stepped off the sides of a tin of Quality Street, would satisfy the most demanding literalist.
It’s put on stage with Jones’s usual efficiency and precision, but always remains mechanical and emotionally chilly – antiseptic really. The performances are certainly efficient, too, but only Nicole Car’s touching, genuinely aware Mimi comes across as a three-dimensional character. However, even then her relationship with Michael Fabiano’s preening, unvaryingly loud Rodolfo doesn’t ring true. Whatever’s going on between Marcello (Mariusz Kwiecień) and Musetta (Simona Mihai, who takes over as Mimi later in the run) isn’t investigated either, any more than the friendship of the four men, with Luca Tittoto as Colline and Florian Sempey as Schaunard, is really explored. Why are they there, one wants to know, and is their poverty real or not? All the real emotional intensity and dramatic engagement has to come from the pit. Antonio Pappano certainly conducts the score superbly, relishing every detail, but there needs to be passion on stage, too. In rep until 10 October. Box office: 020-7304 4000. Broadcast on Radio 3 on 7 October.
Christmas Eve crowds look as though they’ve just stepped off the sides of a tin of Quality Street