La Bohème, Royal Opera House, 19th September 2017

The Opera House pulled out all the stops for its first new production of La Bohème in over 40 years. Lots of TV and radio coverage, plenty of pre-opening night interviews. Expectations were high. Could this be the one? The block busting all round success the Opera House needs? And the one I actually enjoy? My answer is a resounding no. 

Puccini’s much-loved Bohème is one of the most familiar in the repertoire, which of course brings with it enormous challenges for the director, designer and conductor, not to mention the cast. Audience members have their own memories of prior performances, their own earworms of the ‘perfect’ rendition of those well-known arias.  Let’s start with Richard Jones’ production. The emotions the plot deals with are extreme. Passionate young love, loss and death, a fast track to maturity for the four young men. But here we have a group of ‘students’ who one feels throughout are acting a part, surprisingly well-fed. At no point does one feel the participants are other than cardboard cut-outs.

The sets of Stewart Laing do not help. Were they made with a view to the ease of touring the production? The students’ garret is completely bare, apart from a stove. Not even Marcello’s painting ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’ is in view, instead he ‘air paints’ whilst facing the audience. Now, I don’t expect total reality in an operatic production but frankly this bare bones approach leaves a little too much to the imagination.

.My heart went out to poor Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), he of the fashionably (and somewhat dishy) bald head, the unfamiliar long hair clearly an irritant. Then there is the initially hirsute Colline who appears unrecognisably clean-shaven and shorn in Act II. Why, I ask?  The advertised Simona Mihai was unable to appear as Musetta, her role being covered by Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who made her Opera House debut as Violetta in La Traviata in 2016/17. El-Khoury however appeared under-rehearsed and rather uncomfortable as Musetta, the costume ill fitting.  All in all not a production that tugged at the heartstrings nor one that will become a benchmark for excellence. Even Pappano, normally the master of a Puccini score, at times appeared to be pushing the pace impatiently, yet the orchestral playing was, as we have come to expect, sublime.

Hilary Reid Evans

A longer review can be found in edition 259 of our magazine Harmony