The main excitement surrounding The Royal Opera’s 25th revival of John Copley’s 1974 staging was to be have been the appearance of leading German soprano Anja Harteros in the role of Mimi. Scandalously overlooked by the company over the last decade, this former winner of Cardiff Singer of the World made her belated house debut a couple of years ago as Amelia in Simon Boccangera, and rightly caused a sensation. There was a huge sense of disappointment when she withdrew from Suor Angelica in the autumn, and an even bigger one when it was announced that she had been replaced in this run of performances as Mimi by Celine Byrne. The reason? Apparently due to a disagreement over rehearsal time. Having seen her as Mimi in Munich, London audiences really were missing out on having the chance to witness the world’s finest interpreter of the role. But there was more – Ms Byrne suddenly became ill and withdrew from all performances to be replaced by Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio.
Giannattasio’s voice is not particularly memorable, there’s a lot of metal in it, and her ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’ was met with stony silence from an audience that only moments before had given Joseph Calleja a hearty ovation for his scrupulously sensitive rendition of ‘Che gelida manina’. She fails to melt the heart in Act 3 and there was scarcely a wet eye in the house by the time her flame had been snuffed out at the closeof the opera. A star was not born.
Focus instead shifted to Calleja, who gives the finest performance I’ve ever heard him deliver. Dramatically prone to being a cipher in the past, here he looked well schooled by Copley, and threw himself wholeheartedly into the role. He keeps his fast vibrato in check, and produces a stream of steady, vibrant singing throughout the evening. As mentioned above, his ‘Che gelida manina’ is the vocal highlight of the evening.
There is good support from Fabio Capitanucci as Marcello, Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard (both making their house debuts) and Matthew Rose as Colline. Nuccia Focile looks a bit on the mature side for Musetta, but she must have thighs like Fatima Whitbread in order to be able to break a snooker cue in two (don’t try this at home). This is one of the more irritating features of Copley’s staging, which should honestly be put out to grass. It’s back this autumn. Please let it be for the last time. Opera has moved on and it’s time to have another look at this masterpiece.
In the pit Semyon Bychkov turns Puccini’s heart-breaker into an evening of Mahlerian proportions and pulls the score about, teasing out lines here, there and everywhere. Of course Mahler never wrote an opera, but if he had, I imagine it would have sounded like this.