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La bohème (Royal Opera House)

The venerable John Copley production of Puccini's classic returns in its final revival

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Lucas Meachem as Marcello, Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo, Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Simone Del Savio as Schaunard and Marco Vinco as Colline in La bohème (ROH)
© Alastair Muir

So. Farewell, then, John Copley's La bohème. After 41 years your tiny hand has been frozen out of Covent Garden in favour of go-to director Richard Jones. No longer will hearty tenors starve in your shabby-chic split-level garret, or rubicund sopranos expire gracefully in your improbably short bed. There's a new kid moving in and he's going to spruce the place up with fresh ideas and some tasteful rolls of flock wallpaper.

In the four decades since I first saw the Royal Opera's venerable Puccini production on TV, with Ileana Cotrubaş and a youthful Plácido Domingo as Mimì and Rodolfo, it's been a constant.

But theatre has moved on, and opera with it, so we ought to concede that this Bohème's day has indeed past. It's bogged down by a surfeit of stop-for-a-clap opportunities and its intricate designs require one too many intervals for so short an opera. The late Julia Trevelyan Oman's lauded sets fail to convince precisely because they are so realistic: you find yourself distracted by questions that wouldn't arise in a more stylised environment. Why do the attic steps go up before they go down? Is Colline standing inside or outside the Café Momus at the start of act two? That sort of thing.

The show's farewell outing will be around until mid-July so there's still time to catch a classic with one of its two last casts. The first of these, conducted with more energy than intensity by Dan Ettinger, is suitably starry and has been tightly rehearsed for the occasion — like so many of its predecessors — by the octogenarian Copley himself.

I caught the second performance, at which Anna Netrebko as Mimì was vocally a little below par. Intonation was uncharacteristically suspect and her efforts to avoid singing sharp were palpable; yet there was still magic in her clear, full tone, and her third-act duet with Rodolfo was heartbreaking in its sincerity. Her partner, Joseph Calleja, was heroic and glowing in a role that fits him like a glove. The Maltese Tenor has never sounded better than here.

Royal Opera audiences were deprived of an earlier chance to hear American soprano Jennifer Rowley when she was summarily dropped, amid unwelcome publicity, from the cast of Robert le Diable. That was in 2012. Three years on she's back, a ravishing vocal presence, to sing a bewitching Musetta alongside the expressive and deftly characterised Marcello of her fellow-countryman Lucas Meachem.

Marco Vinco makes more of the bearded Colline than some of his predecessors: his coat aria is terrific. Simone Del Savio is a good Schaunard, Jeremy White and the veteran Ryland Davies great fun as the butt of jokes, and the whole thing purrs like a well-oiled machine. Well, of course it does. If it wasn't run in by now there'd be questions in the House.

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