Saturday, 11 January 2020

Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House

Puccini: La Bohème - Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème - Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini La Bohème; Simona Mihai, Charles Castronovo, Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk, Peter Kellner, Gyula Nagy, dir: Richard Jones/Julia Burbach, cond: Emmanuel Villaume; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strong, moving and funny revival of Jones' highly theatrical production

Puccini: La Bohème - Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème - Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk
Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Richard Jones' production of Puccini's La Bohème is back at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after its debut in 2017/18. The opening night, 10 January 2020, featured the first of two casts though soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was due to sing Mimì, had to drop out owing to illness, and she was replaced at short notice by Simona Mihai who had sung the role in the original run and is due to sing Musetta later in this run. Emmanuel Villaume conducted, with Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo (who sang the role in the production during 2017/18), Andrzej Filonczyk as Marcello, Peter Kellner as Colline, Gyula Nagy as Schaunard and Aida Garifullina (making her Royal Opera debut) as Musetta. The revival was directed by Julia Burbach.

Jones' production replaced the Royal Opera's longest running production, John Copley's 1974 La Bohème with supra-realistic designs from Julia Trevelyan Oman. A much beloved production, frequently revived, which was launched with a cast including Katia Ricciarelli and Placido Domingo, and whose final revival (supervised by Copley himself) included Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, with some performances conducted by Placido Domingo. Some of Jones' decisions around his new production should perhaps be seen in the light of having to replace this production.

One question which hangs over La Bohème, perhaps surprisingly, is 'who are these people?'. Puccini specifies that the opera is set in Paris in the 1830s, when the original Henri Murger stories were set, but are they? Are the young men students, or are they men simply living the Bohemian life, as happened at the period? In other words, role-playing the life of a struggling artist. Perhaps the characters are denizens of the Paris of 1890, when Puccini wrote the opera, a city divided from the city of Murger by the huge urban renewal of Baron Haussmann. Puccini is rumoured to have based some of the men's antics on the japes that he and his friends got up to when he was studying in Milan, and some of Puccini's friends claimed that they were the originals of the young men, as Puccini had a Bohemian club in a local tavern whilst he was writing the opera. And don't forget that the young Puccini was taken under the wing by a group of older Italian artists who had all been members of the Scapigliatura (literally unkempt or dishevelled), the Italian artistic movement which was the equivalent of French bohemianism.

Modern directors often side-step these issues by setting the opera somewhere in the 20th century, but Jones addresses it head on by adding a theatrical element to his production. Whilst the costumes and set details are all clearly 1890s, he and designer Stewart Laing provide a great deal of evidence of the theatrical mechanism: no drop curtains, clear and obvious scene changes, visible lights and snow machine, stage hands moving the scenery. Jones also strips back some of the detail. Whilst Act Two is a dazzling whirl of theatrical daring, all vivid action and moving scenery, Acts One and Three take place in a bright attic space. There is no dark when Mimì and Rodolfo's candles go out, there is no shaft of romantic moonlight for 'O soave fanciulla'. Instead, Jones leaves space for the singers and the production relies on the relations between the singers, and the characters they create. Some of the action is naturalistic, but often the four young men, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard act as a sort of chorus. It could be stagey and artificial, but much depends on the singers creating the roles.

Puccini: La Bohème - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème (Act One) - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Thankfully, for this revival the Royal Opera had put together a strong and very balanced cast, with Simona Mihai displaying little, if any, sign of having been parachuted in at the last minute.

Mihai and Castronovo made a fine, believable pairing as Mimì and Rodolfo. Mihai successfully combined a sense of fragility with an underlying strength of character, and a powerful ability to project musically. Castronovo's performance was intelligent and generous, this was not one of those Rodolfos which, though finely sung, are all about the tenor. Castronovo had the ability to shape lines, and sing quietly, and slip into ensemble. He and Mihai made a superb pairing, and for me the strongest scene in the opera was the end of Act Three where the set moves backwards and leaves the four singers, Mihai and Castronovo, Garifullina and Filonczyk (as Musetta and Marcello) on stage. Mihai and Castronovo made this a powerful moment, immensely moving and memorable in a way that it is often not. Mimì's death scene was finely and intelligently done, yet there was something a little staged about it (perhaps because of Mihai's last minute substitution) so that whilst I admired it, my guts were not quite wrenched as they should be.

Puccini: La Bohème - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème (Act Three) - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
The young (he was born in 1994) Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk made a strong Marcello, making him an equal character to Rodolfo and Mimì. There was a lovely ping to Filonczyk's voice, and it helped that he made fine, sexy Marcello, albeit in a different style to Rodolfo. This is a romantic opera and whilst we can suspend disbelief, it helps if we don't have to. Andrzej Filonczyk and Aida Garifullina made the relationship between Marcello and Musetta really sizzle (and perhaps showed us what was lacking in that of Rodolfo and Mimì). Garifullina, perhaps somewhat luxury casting as Musetta, played Jones' conception of the character to the hilt, giving us a waltz that was beautifully sung and very sexy (including the removing and throwing of the knickers). There was a grandness to Garifullina's Musetta too, and it made me regret that Puccini decided not to set the scene where Musetta is thrown out of her lodgings and throws a party in the courtyard.

The other two Bohemians, Peter Kellner as Colline and Gyula Nagy as Schaunard, made equally strong contributions so that the four young men were a wonderfully theatrical and balanced quartet. Nagy's Schaunard was almost hyper-active and very 'theatrical', one wondered whether Jones was hinting about his sexuality, whilst Kellner drew a fine focus towards him, culminating in a powerfully concentrated performance of his farewell to his coat.

The smaller roles were equally part of the whole, with Jeremy White as a delightful Benoit, Andrew Macnair as an intriguing Parpignol, Eddie Wade as a highly befuddled Alcindoro, John Morrisey as the customs officer and Thomas Barnard as the Sergeant. A word too about the non-credited roles, there was fine work from the actors including the man playing the maitre d'hotel of the restaurant and the tall young actor leading the band at the end of Act Two.

One of the things that I noticed about the production was quite how funny it was. It wasn't just the audience laughing at the surtitles as they read them, but the action was itself funny without guying the piece. None of the singers tried to pretend to be a teenager, but all created a real sense of enjoyment and some moments of sharp humour.

Puccini: La Bohème - Andrzej Filonczyk, Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai, Gyula Nagy, Peter Kellner - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème - Andrzej Filonczyk, Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai, Gyula Nagy, Peter Kellner - Royal Opera
((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
I loved what Emmanuel Villaume and the orchestra did with the piece. This was a flexible and fluid performance, yet one that moved. With a single interval after Act Two, each half came in at under an hour, yet it never felt rushed. Things flowed past in a shapely manner, and the great moments were finely shaped without ever feeling we were over lingering.

La Bohème is in production at the Royal Opera until 5 February 2020, with a second cast conducted by Ariane Matiakh for some performances.

This review also appears in OperaToday.com

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