The first appearance by the ‘B’ cast in the current run of a Bohème that’s been in rep since 1974 hardly makes for a red letter day, so The Royal Opera can be forgiven for programming this debut as a Saturday afternoon matinee. Perhaps the decision was intended to downplay the fact that the stellar ‘A’ cast will no longer be appearing, or perhaps they were banking on a more sympathetic reception from the Saturday afternoon crowd for the lesser-known leads. The show was certainly well received, with Puccini’s knockabout humour and tear-jerking both having their desired effects, at least on the audience in the amphitheatre where I was sitting.
John Copley’s production more than justifies its extraordinary longevity. The sets, by Julia Trevelyan Oman, make full use of the large stage and are filled with period details, yet somehow avoid ever feeling cluttered. Both the attic in the outer acts and the café in the second are steeply raked sets, allowing for subtle foreshortening effects and a deceptive sense of depth. The sheer altitude of the attic is suggested by the fact you always have to look up at things, although this is probably more effective from the stalls. Café Momus in Act II is a hive of activity, and the set cleverly incorporates both the interior of the café itself, with several separate saloons, and a busy street scene outside. The third act set, in contrast, is a bleak and open expanse of snow, with just the small veranda of the tavern at one side to act as a focal point. The whole production gives the visual impression or a run-down, tatty and cold Bohemian quarter. And yet the tattiness continues to look deliberate, and there is never any sense that the production is suffering for its age or struggling to retain its verisimilitude in these more sophisticated times. Copley’s job is significantly aided by Puccini’s detailed instructions, but even so, an impressive dramatic sensibility is demonstrated by his visually representing every aspect of the characters’ interrelationships while also giving the music itself plenty of space in the famous arias.
But if you’ve seen La bohème at Covent Garden at any time in the last 38 years, you’ll know all this already. The question is how the present company fill the large shoes left for them by Villazón, Kovalevska et al. Well, this clearly is a ‘B’ cast, with one or two fine voices but no standout performances. A cast sheet filled almost exclusively with Italian names is always a promising start for a Puccini opera, and the singing from most was impressively idiomatic. The Bohemian flatmates made for a good vocal ensemble, each with a distinctive voice but combining and interacting well in musical terms. Gabriele Viviani was on impressive form as Marcello the painter; his baritone rich, resonant and clear. In fact, his was probably the finest vocal performance of the afternoon. Alessio Arduini came a close second as Schaunard the musician. He too has a rich and attractive tone, although the role offers precious few moments for him to shine. Marco Vinco was less impressive as Colline the philosopher; his diction was clear and his performance emotive, but he doesn’t have the richness of tone to match his colleagues.
Nor, sadly does Teodor Ilincai in the part of Rodolfo. He’s a proficient singer, but on the evidence of this performance, doesn’t have the star quality required to lead such a cast. He had tuning problems in the upper register, often going sharp on the top notes, and his tone isn’t particularly attractive anywhere in his range. Curiously though, he blended well with Anita Hartig, who seemed a much stronger singer in the role of Mimì. Like Ilincai, Hartig sings with a fairly narrow tone, but her intonation is more precise and her diction clearer. She struggles a little with the lower register passages, but otherwise has no technical problems with the part. And although her tone is too penetrating to be beautiful on its own terms, it is ideal for conveying Mimì’s fragility and infirmity. The cast had one last vocal treat saved up for Act II in the person of Sonya Yoncheva as Marcello’s love interest, Musetta. She gave a superbly florid coloratura performance here, and provided an ideal focus for the attention in the visually complex second act. Her vibrato may sound over insistent and aggressive in other contexts, but it was just right here.
Both Ilincai and Hartig are fine actors, and the performance drew much of its credibility from their onstage chemistry. The acting from the rest of the cast is good too. The hi-jinks at the start of Act I seemed a bit contrived, and there is certainly space for more slapstick extravagance from Jeremy White as the tipsy landlord Benoît. But the flatmates up their game considerably for the frivolities of Act II, and finally become fully convincing as an ensemble in the more emotionally complex final act.
Conducting duties were taken over from Mark Elder by the lesser-known Alexander Joel. The orchestra was on sparkling form, and Joel seemed to be expending more energy than he needed to keep them together. His tempos were slightly stiff, although the emotive playing and singing more than compensated for any possible reduction in the music’s emotion. Joel communicated well with the cast, with the possible exception of Ilincai, whose occasionally laboured rubato was more than could be accommodated in the pit.
Long running repertory productions at major opera houses run the risk of become mere receptacles for top name casts to be dropped into when their busy schedules allow. But John Copley’s Bohème is clearly more than that, as this afternoon’s performance demonstrated. There was never any sense that the production was acting as a vehicle for the cast, in fact quite the opposite. Most of the singers gave competent renditions of their respective parts, and musically the performance was about as good as you would expect for a second cast. But the star of the show remains the production itself. It’s got many miles on the clock but there’s still plenty of life in it yet.
Photographs (c) Bill Cooper