A plethora of Bohèmes

No doubt it’s a symptom of needing to fill theatres in a difficult economic climate, but the proliferation of performances of La bohème in the UK in the next few months is slightly overwhelming.  It’s everywhere. Between now and the end of next season it’s getting 30 performances from WNO, 14 at the Glyndebourne Festival and 14 at ENO – as well as no fewer than five casts across 24 performances in John Copley’s 1974 warhorse of a production at the Royal Opera House.  If I were to catch each Royal Opera cast once and each of the other productions once each, I would rack up eight performances in fifteen months without duplicates.  A couple of months ago I even participated in one.

In my view the pick of these, in the sense of actual interest value, will be the WNO one (as it’s a new production, by Annabel Arden), opening in early June and continuing onto the autumn tour with some casting variations along the way, and the Glyndebourne Festival one which original director David McVicar is reviving (and, I’ve heard, significantly revising) himself, with a cast including two memorable former Cardiff Singer of the World prizewinners: soprano Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, the 2009 winner, and baritone Andrei Bondarenko who took the Song Prize in 2011.

I had a youthful love affair with Bohème.  When I first saw ENO’s old Stephen Pimlott production in its 1999 revival, I was 21, penniless and living in a house-share in which the boiler had just broken in the middle of winter.  Balcony day seats at the ENO were £2.50 at the time, pretty much the cheapest evening out in town, and there was a fabulous cast.  That wasn’t my first Bohème, and the parallel with my own circumstances at the time undoubtedly had something to do with it, but it was the first time I ever fell so in love with an opera that I ended up going to the majority of performances in a long run.

After that it’s fair to say that I swiftly became a little jaded and bored with the piece.  I certainly pretty much gave up on the Royal Opera staging after seeing it inhabited by a variety of casts between 2000 and 2005. It’s now so ancient that when it was premièred, its current first-cast Rodolfo was not yet even a twinkle in his father’s eye.  You’d think that kind of statistic might be a trigger for a new production to be considered.  It had already had several revivals by the time it was first filmed for video release in 1982.  I last saw it in 2005, with an all-star cast who didn’t really seem to have their hearts in it.  By sheer coincidence of scheduling, the following day I attended a matinee of the same opera, in English, in a tiny studio theatre with a young cast and a piano accompaniment, and despite all the constraints of such a performance, it highlighted everything that had been missing from or wrong with the one I had watched the previous night.  It had passion, heart and intimacy.  It was at that point that I decided I hadn’t entirely gone off the piece, but that I was not going to see the Copley production again for a very long time, if ever.

Seven years later, having missed three interim revivals, I’m back. So is original director John Copley.  The cast has come together partly by accident; the combination of Joseph Calleja and Anja Harteros was what tempted me to book again after such a long break, but having lost Harteros and her original replacement Celine Byrne, we ended up with Carmen Giannattasio (a terrific artist in my view, who doesn’t appear in the UK enough, and who I would certainly have booked for had she been cast originally).  So far, so good.  Meanwhile, visa issues forced Yuri Vorobiev (the young Russian bass whose Gurnemanz in the Mariinsky Parsifal was recently so impressive) to pull out of his first few scheduled performances as Colline, his place being taken by Matthew Rose.

I’m not sure whether absence played a part in making my heart grow fonder, or whether the presence of the original director was particularly instrumental in invigorating the revival, but I enjoyed it very much. I’ve seen Bohème all over the place since I last saw this production, and it’s a very long time since I’ve found one so emotionally involving.  I was at the second night, and having seen almost unanimous (mostly positive) comments from the first-night reviewers, I suspect the one I saw was stronger.

For a start, the whole thing was full of energy and (new) detail.  And the singing! Calleja is sounding simply brilliant at the moment, and that bright, youthful, tireless sound is finally being matched by natural and instinctive acting.  Giannattasio’s substantial, soft-grained soprano is a good foil for it, and more importantly they have real chemistry together on stage.  The contrast in their physical appearance helps – he a strapping gentle giant, she a tiny, fine-featured waif.  The development of Rodolfo and Mimì’s first meeting in Act 1 was infinitely touching, and if I hadn’t already been feeling their pain in the travails of Act 3, the moment in Act 4 when he swept her bodily into his arms would certainly still have done the trick.  I was hugely impressed too with the Marcello, Fabio Capitanucci – a beautiful voice, great stage instinct and a natural interaction with his colleagues.  Looking at future listings, I’m pleased to see we’re due to see more of him here in London, in Les troyens and L’elisir d’amoreSemyon Bychkov’s conducting was another highlight – despite a slow start to the second act and a few hairy moments in the ensemble, the cast and chorus seemed responsive to his broad sweep. And he’s a master of moments, sensitive to every subtle change of key and tempo in the few minutes of Mimì’s death scene.

I don’t mean to overlook the contribution of the other singers (among them Nuccia Focile as Musetta and Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard) but I didn’t set out to write a detailed review – just some thoughts on the specifics of what it was about this revival that made the production work for me this time, when it hasn’t in the past.

I’m very happy that my Bohème ennui seems to have lifted – gioventù mia, tu non sei morto! – though I can’t imagine that my boredom with the Copley production will ever cease to bubble under the surface. But until the Royal Opera dares to scrap and replace it (its 1970s vintage is evident in the sheer amount of orange and brown in the costumes!) it’s amazing what difference a good, well-matched cast and a bit of dramatic conviction can make…

Edited to add: I received notice this morning of this concert on Tuesday 15th May at St Paul’s Covent Garden (the “Actors’ Church” on the the other side of the Piazza from the ROH). It’s early and it’s short, timed so that anybody with a ticket for the ROH Falstaff can go to both, and it features several of the aforementioned excellent Bohème cast.  Tickets £15.