“Mi piaccion quelle cose
che han sì dolce malìa,
che parlano d’amor, di primavere, di sogni e di chimere,
quelle cose che han nome poesia.”
“I love all things,
that have gentle magic,
that talk of love, of spring, that talk of dreams and fancies,
the things called poetry.”
– La Bohème, Act I
Lyrical and full of “gentle magic”, this revival of Richard Jones’ 2017 production of La Bohème stays true to Mimì’s word in Act I, during her first encounter with Rodolfo. The word “chimera” especially, which in Greek mythology is a fantastic creature, conveys a sense of reverie, illusion, fancy. That’s how I would describe the production: it’s imaginative, poetic, and at times surprising (at least for those who haven’t seen the 2017 version). It may occasionally lack the sweeping “whoosh” of melodrama, but it embodies the more delicate side of Puccini remarkably well.
In all honesty, I thought one of the best things of the whole performance was the banter of the four artists/friends living together in an attic in the Latin Quarter (Act I). Marcello (Etienne Dupuis), Rodolfo (a very convincing and inspired Matthew Polenzani), Colline (Fernando Radò) and Schaunard (Duncan Rock) embrace with vigour their bohemian characters, enriching their singing with gestures, mimics, and co-ordinated movements. The result is an explosion of delightful irony, which makes the beginning quite an exhilarating one.
After this promising start, Act II evolves into a triumph of colours, objects and people, as the energetic chorus gives a vivid portrayal of a Parisian Christmas Eve. Stealing the scene is Musetta (Danielle de Niese) and her hilarious attempts to seduce her ex-lover Marcello in an extravagant Café Momus. In comparison, Act III feels like a bit of a disappointment. We are here supposed to see the “crisis” of the relationships between both Mimì and Rodolfo, and Marcello and Musetta, with bursts of jealousy, anger, and foreboding. Instead, we get a rather weak number from the two couples, with wishy-washy singing and a lot of standing awkwardly next to each other. In this act, Mimì (Maria Agresta) is at times a bit paler (metaphorically) than what an opera heroine should be, failing to convey the full tragedy of her situation. All in all, in the third act we almost lose sight of the raison d’être of the opera.
Things get better in the last act, which brings back the artists and their strong banter (and very naughty drawings), as well as a more convincing Agresta, who with her vibrato rescues the character and intensity of her misfortune. Overall, Jones’ production, and the cast of the press night, nails the opera’s camaraderie and glittery side of things, but less so the melodrama that is integral to the work of Puccini.
A certain disparity is also visible in the set design by Steward Laing. The opera opens in the artists’ studio/flat in the Latin Quarter. Laing shuns away from a messy, packed room and instead creates a simple, immaculately white, beam-propped space, which one can easily describe as minimalist (credits to the lady sitting next to me for the spot-on adjective, coming up in our interval chat). This approach is a great idea for two reasons: the bareness conveys the idea of poverty as absence and true lack of means (more than, say, an accumulation of haphazard items would do), and the whiteness taps into the wintery, snowy, cold setting of the opera. In addition, the room’s simplicity works in stunning contrast with the liveliness of the Parisian streets in Act II, bustling with all sorts of colours and shapes. There’s a wonderful change in what happens on stage, and even the occasional chaos (as in the Café Momus) is more than welcome. In Act III, almost hand in hand with the rather low-key acting and singing, we get a spaced out, anonymous set, where centre stage consists essentially of an empty space. While this is likely to be a deliberate choice, the desired effect is rather unclear.
A redeeming, unifying element seems to be the snow, which by failing abundantly (or, as Joyce would have it,“falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling”) is as versatile as it is charming. Depending on the scene, it brings silence, joy, a Christmassy atmosphere, or despair. It’s atmospheric and magical, even in mid-June. More than anything, it gives a touch of illusion and romance, and impalpable magic – which is what this version of La Bohème does really well.
La Bohème is playing at the Royal Opera House until 20 July
Photo: Catherine Ashmore