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La bohème (ROH)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Mimi wasn't the only one feeling the cold. The prevailing arctic snap meant plenty of frozen hands among the audience too, while onstage it was the bronchial Rodolfo, rather than his beloved, who was laid low by the winter chill.

In fact two brave Rodolfos shared the stage on opening night, as midway through the evening poor Piotr Beczala bowed to the inevitable and succumbed to his cold. In true 42nd Street tradition, Teodor Ilincai, the young Romanian who is due for a crack at the role after Christmas, stepped out of audience and into the breach. Only partially rehearsed, barely warmed up and with an ever-watchful eye on the conductor, Ilincai embraced the adventure and fully earned his fairy-tale ovation. After this he probably believes in Father Christmas too.

Henri Murger's desperate tale of young artists starving in a garret is hardly a winter warmer, especially amid Act Three's bitter exteriors (Puccini's finest half-hour, I'd say); yet this house favourite brings a glow to the night like Cognac and Christmas cake. It's as traditional as they come: the late Julia Trevelyan Oman's celebrated fin de siècle sets outdo the opera itself in the Verismo stakes, yet only in the visually chaotic second act do they threaten to overwhelm a production which, in director John Copley's own revival, remains as fresh as Marcello's paint.

A spirited reading of the score by Andris Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra cushions the singers with musical security while allowing them every leeway for dramatic interpretation. Nelsons attends to the detail of Puccini's orchestration with impeccable nuance, colour and balance. When the young Latvian conductor was born this production was already three years old, but on this showing he more than deserves his soaring reputation.

Rising above her poet-lover's body-swap, Hilba Gerzmava portrays a Mimi of desolate beauty. The more ill she becomes, the more her vocal lines emerge like spun gold. She is no simpering victim, either: Gerzmava's Mimi is vulnerable, impassioned and even a little complicated. It is a heartbreaking performance, and for the sake of future audiences I hope Beczala was able to keep his germs to himself during their onstage intimacies.

Gerzmava has previously sung Musetta, a role taken here by Inna Dukach, herself a former Mimi. It is a problem for this revival that the two sopranos are insufficiently dissimilar. Dukach's voice is too dark-toned for Musetta's music, so a vital emotional contrast between the two characters is missing from the inner acts.

Rodolfo's flatmates could do with a bit more spark: on opening night the comedy and camaraderie of their roles was a little muted. Perhaps they felt tense about the struggling Beczala in Act One and anxious for the tyro Ilincai during Act Four. But Gabriele Viviani as Marcello is very fine in the Act Three quartet, and both Jacques Imbrailo (Schaunard) and Kostas Smoriginas (Colline) have excellent moments.

The secret of the production's durability is its utter harmony with Puccini's score. Mimi's demise may come as no great surprise, but in Copley's hands it still has the power to overwhelm, both now and – why not? – for years to come.


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