La Bohème review – exuberant and persuasive revival performed with elan

Royal Opera House, London
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume brings drive and intensity to Richard Jones’s detailed but inconsistent production of Puccini’s brilliantly written opera

There are Puccini operas that some of us might not miss never seeing again. But La Bohème is incontrovertibly not one of them. One takes a seat for La Bohème with happy anticipation. When Puccini duly captures you with his brilliantly written and constructed score, those expectations are rarely disappointed – and certainly not in this Covent Garden revival.

Richard Jones’s production, which made its debut in 2017, has several virtues. These bohemians really do shiver in a spare and freezing garret under a Parisian sky from which the snow falls before a note has been sung. Stewart Laing’s sets push the principals to the front of the stage so that big vocal moments ring out. Characterisations are standard but credible. But there are downsides. The exuberant street and cafe staging of act two bowls along with enormous elan, but it is so pyrotechnical, with so much shifting of scenery, that the action and the music are a bit overwhelmed.

Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo, Andrzej Filończyk as Marcello, Peter Kellner as Colline and Gyula Nagy as Schaunard in La Bohème.
Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo, Andrzej Filończyk as Marcello, Peter Kellner as Colline and Gyula Nagy as Schaunard in La Bohème. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This 12-performance revival is double- and, in some cases, triple-cast. On the opening night, Charles Castronovo is an ardently persuasive Rodolfo, who manages to mature emotionally as the opera progresses; his dark, almost baritonal tenor rises comfortably to all challenges. Simona Mihai, who sings Musetta later in the run, replaced the indisposed Sonya Yoncheva at short notice as Mimi. She looks perfect in the role and phrases tenderly, but with the necessary weight when required. The first night Musetta, Aida Garifullina, vocally bright and brilliant on house debut, shows she learns about life, moving from the good-time girl who stands on a restaurant table and removes her underwear in act two to a severely dressed adult in act four. Andrzej Filończyk is a reliable Marcello. Gyula Nagy and Peter Kellner complete the quartet of bohemians.

But La Bohème is also a conductor’s opera, as Toscanini, who conducted the 1896 premiere, proved for the ages in an electrifying 50th-anniversary recording. In the pit, Emmanuel Villaume is in many ways the star of this revival. He brings the drive and intensity that the opera requires while paying full attention to the care and originality of Puccini’s scoring.

• At the Royal Opera House, London, until 13 February.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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