Review: La bohème (Royal Opera House)

Richard Jones’s new production of Puccini’s opera may yet become a classic

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Nicole Car as Mimì in La bohème (ROH)
Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Nicole Car as Mimì in La bohème (ROH)
© Catherine Ashmore

Let’s hope the Royal Opera has cut a bulk order deal with its snow supplier, because Richard Jones‘s new Bohème will be around for a while. Puccini’s tearjerker is a lucky opera for Covent Garden: John Copley’s hearty staging fed the company’s coffers for more than four decades and its replacement is set fair to do likewise.

As yet, however, it's undercooked. A long list of visual and technical infelicities will need to be addressed before it’s the finished article, not least a pair of grindingly dead scene changes. We can probably count on future revival directors to address these, and on Stewart Laing (set designer) and Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting) to smoothe out the wrinkles in their otherwise arresting work.

The big surprise is how traditional it is. Is Jones getting soft or was he under orders to deliver a keeper? There’s no edge to this show; nothing off-centre or risky, nothing even vaguely ‘out there’. Even the ROH boo-boys gave his team a free pass at the curtain call, and that almost never happens. Yet while in period and place this is a safe take on La bohème, there is plenty of originality in its execution.

The garret of the outer acts is a bare loft whose only source of light is a tiny roof window. It’s been given a perfunctory coat of whitewash by the landlord, Benoît (Jeremy White), but for four burly inhabitants it’s little more than slave dwelling.

'Perhaps the most exciting tenor of his generation'

The budget’s clearly been eaten by Act 2, which begins in a trio of shopping arcades (a nod to Covent Garden?) before moving indoors to the Café Momus, here an exclusive restaurant with, one assumes, prices to match, and eventually out into a Parisian boulevard where a band marches in full regalia.

Antonio Pappano conducts a score he knows backwards, and it shows in the ravishing phrasing and tiny moments of accentuation with which he colours it. The ROH orchestra and chorus responded superbly on the opening night of their season, invigorated and vital and ready for the fray.

The young Australian soprano Nicole Car has quickly established herself as a company favourite, and this exquisitely sung Mimì shows why. Her warm, bright tone, steady and agile across the range, was a joy to hear, with only the last degree of expressive freedom missing from her portrayal of love and death.

Michael Fabiano is perhaps the most exciting tenor of his generation and a fearless stage animal, but his voice took an act or so to settle down on opening night. Rodolfo’s first-act duet with Mimì did not find him at his best, although given the American’s class and pedigree that’s unlikely to be a lasting concern. Besides, later on when tragedy struck he kicked ass.

The third lead, and the only male principal to be spared an unbecoming wig, was superstar baritone Mariusz Kwiecień. Too posh for a hairpiece, evidently, but choice casting as Marcello and a luminous presence on prime vocal form. He was ideally partnered by the Musetta of Simona Mihai, a radiant soprano who will step up to sing Mimì at some later performances. With characterful contributions by Florian Sempey as Schaunard and Luca Tittoto as Colline, the Royal Opera has hired a strong, convincingly youthful cast to inaugurate its new production.

Curiously, though, the toyseller Parpignol is nowhere to be seen.

La bohème runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 10 October.