Pipe down Rodolfo! Mag­nif­i­cent Mimi tri­umphs over the an­ti­sep­tic bohemians

The Guardian - - JOURNAL | THE CRITICS - Opera La Bo­hème Michael Fabi­ano as Rodolfo and Ni­cole Car as Mimi Pho­to­graph: Tris­tram Ken­ton An­drew Cle­ments

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

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