Puccini’s tragedy La bohème is performed more almost than any other opera, and so this new Royal Opera House production, — the first in over four decades — is a pretty major deal for the opera world. Music Director of The Royal Opera Antonio Pappano ensures musical brilliance, but director Richard Jones’ sloppy, confused take on this hyper-sentimental tale may leave audiences baffled.
Some of the time, the back wall of the theatre is exposed. Other times, a completely realistic set piece is noisily trundled up to the front by stagehands. Sometimes pieces of set shuffle off at a snail’s pace, with no visible help. Sometimes cartoonish false perspective is used. Stewart Laing’s banal and inconsistent designs are at no point referred to by the cast and serve no discernible dramatic purpose. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bland lighting shows no visible difference between the daylight, moonlight, candle-light and shopaholic Christmas lights of the libretto. Was this an attempt at meta-theatre that got micro-managed by conservative powers-that-be? We’ll never know.
The cast, on the other hand, are world class. Michael Fabiano has already played Rodolfo all over the world, and received loud stamping during the curtain call for his powerful, gripping tenor. Nicole Car’s Mimì was a little overpowered by comparison, but her vocal style so clearly gave way to the character’s suffering that it almost bordered on musical theatre. This new production makes a big feature of the acting, and the whole cast are alive and engaged with comedy and camaraderie throughout.
The orchestra too evoke the mad, hearty humour of the struggling artists, and the ghostly sadness of doomed love, with stunning finesse. You could close your eyes and appreciate this new production, but that wouldn’t do justice to the cast’s talent on stage. Wonderful though it is for The Royal Opera to breathe new life into an old classic, it’s hard to imagine this production lasting anywhere near as long as its beloved predecessor. Shame.