On opening night this, the 26th revival of John Copley's venerable production of Puccini's immortal tearjerker, tugged at the heart for the wrong reasons. It's Mimì who's supposed to be the delicate one in La bohème, but Maija Kovalevska was in such fine fettle all evening that her demise when it came seemed almost out of character. The Latvian soprano's voice may not be the sweetest but it was strong and secure.
The same could not be said, alas, for her Rodolfo. Although the show will sell on the strength of his name, Rolando Villazón was a shadow of his former self and easily the more fragile of the two lovers. Therein lay the evening's true sadness. It was impossible to relax into the Mexican star's performance as his powers seemed to ebb further and further away as the evening wore on, until by Act Three he was straining to be heard, pushing his way into the high tessitura and hiding the money notes under swelling orchestral tutti.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus responded with lithe vigour under Mark Elder's baton. Early concerns that the conductor had taken too Britishly brisk an approach to the Act One love duet may, in retrospect, be seen to have been a selfless act of support for his struggling tenor. Certainly, whenever possible Elder appeared to do whatever he could to cushion and conceal Villazón's vocal frailty – and more power to him for that.
The supporting cast was solid, although Stefania Dovhan's feisty Musetta lacked finesse and Audun Iversen's splendidly sung Marcello lacked physical grace. Nahuel Di Pierro was an unusually athletic and versatile Colline who sang a very touching ‘coat' aria, and his antics with Villazón's Chaplinesque Rodolfo brought some welcome verve to an opening scene that had been tightly rehearsed for this revival by Copley himself.
The late Julia Trevelyan Oman's sets are famously realistic, but they bother me increasingly with their pointless levels in both Acts One and Two where people walk up one flight of steps only to walk straight down another one. The Café Momus is a visual mess that continually fails to draw the eye where it needs to focus; and surely the French would have played ‘Carom' billiards (on a pocketless table) in such a place? The designs and direction of Act Three, by contrast, are always a delight with their clean, perpendicular lines, open spaces and atmospherically lit blend of snow and smoke.
La bohème is the Royal Opera's reassuring grandad: a much-loved, slippers-and-briar-pipe production that it's a joy to come home to. The cast is due to change more than once during its extended run through till March 2013, and when a more secure tenor than the troubled Villazón comes to keep vigil by Mimì's beside it will continue to enthral.
- Mark Valencia