Upon taking someone to the opera for the first time, I might well choose Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s a classic, the music is exquisite, and the story contains all the emotional highs and lows one expects from opera. This new production at the Royal Opera House, directed by Richard Jones, has a lot of expectations to live up to, as it replaces a well-loved older production that ran for 41 years.
(photos by Catherine Ashmore)
Set around 1830, La Bohème tells the story of a group Bohemians living poor but happy in Paris attics. Poet Rodolfo is falling for ailing seamstress Mimì, painter Marcello is heartbroken over flighty and headstrong Musetta, musician Schaunard brings home some much-needed food and firewood through an enterprising commission to a gathering including philosopher Colline. A bohemian tale of love, friendship, jealousy and tragedy ensues.
Unfortunately, the cast do not fully match the passion that Puccini’s wonderful score provides. The comedic interactions between Marcello, Schaunard and the rest are very amusing, and the singing is excellent all-round, but the most watchable and best characterised is Nicole Car’s youthful Mimì. Though I was far away, she constantly drew my eyes to her. Her blue-grey dress complimenting her dark ginger hair beautifully, she fully inhabited her character and gave touching renditions of Mimì’s classic arias.
Stewart Laing‘s spectacular set and costumes sparkle. Though some aspects of 19th century Paris are pared down – the mostly bare wood garret that forms the first set is stark in design (and unfortunately greatly obscures the view of those in it for people in the cheap seats like me) – the opera’s setting in past resists too much modernisation. The colourful arcades and shops of the next scene with their bustling crowd of merry Parisians look like a beautifully Christmassy chocolate tin, making me wish this production with its Nutcracker-esque design were running til December. Certainly, the children’s chorus looked and sounded as happy and excited as if it were Christmas eve, singing out and clearly enjoying their bright sailor-suits and doll-like dresses. The classically rendered Café Momus set was pink and fluffy like a well-iced cake, and yet the giant black box of a stage in the background, slightly cinematic in quality in quality as slow lightly fell, reminded me (and another audience member I overheard on my way out) of Ian McNeil’s design for Angels in America at the National Theatre.
This Bohème, though barely unconventional or thought-provoking, succeeds overall. Even though I was up almost in the gods and standing, time flew by as I was swept up in the moving story. Whether the production’s power lies in the new staging or the opera’s enduring appeal will only be revealed over time.
La Bohème is playing at the Royal Opera House until 10th October 2017 and again from 16th June to 20th July 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.