Ready for their close-up

Michael Fabiano, Luca Tittoto, Mariusz Kwiecień and Florian Sempey. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Giacomo Puccini
Covent Garden
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 30 September

One of the more challenging aspects of the relentless refinement of technology in recent years is the way high-definition television sets make watching older films almost unbearable. It’s hard to say what the change consists of, but most TVs have a way of flattening lower definition images so that you have to adjust your perceptual habits to see the film through the film, so to speak.

It can be rather like that with veteran opera productions. Even the best ones acquire a kind of temporal dust which no singer or director can banish satisfactorily. With some, the need to retire comes quickly. With John Copley’s Covent Garden production of La Bohème it came only towards the end of its third decade. First produced in 1974, to designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, Copley’s Bohème went on to be the longest-running in the company’s history. Its farewell run in 2015, featuring Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja as Mimi and Rodolfo in one cast and Lianna Haroutounian and Piotr Beczala in the other, was conducted in part by Plácido Domingo, who sang Rodolfo opposite Katia Ricciarelli in 1974. When it costs this much to do your dusting, it’s probably time to get some new furniture.

Copley was originally asked for “something traditional, which will last four or five seasons”. Richard Jones, who directs the new production with which the Royal Opera has just opened its 2017/18 season, might well have been asked for the same, “only in HD”. That, at least, is more or less what he has provided. It snows from the opening scene, and if the setting is updated it’s only by a few decades, from Copley’s faithful 1830s Paris to the early years of the belle époque. There’s plenty of the requisite colour and commotion in the inner acts and plenty of resonant details to concentrate the action around in the outer ones.

The sets are by Stewart Laing, his first job for the company. They are designed for durability but also portability – the fluid transition scenes are ingeniously integrated into the action – as well as ease of use. Bohème is the most frequently presented opera at Covent Garden, and these sets will take a fraction of the time it took to set up their predecessors. Visually, they fall into line with the way most designers work when they collaborate with Jones, with stylization serving to bring significant details into focus and lines of perspective foreshortened to bring the action close to the front. The bohemians’ garret is a small attic space squashed into the rafters, while the superbly rendered arcades of the second act sweep effortlessly (for the viewer – the black-clad technicians have to work pretty hard) away to allow the virtual camera to swoop into Café Momus’s bustling interior. The movement director, Sarah Fahie, has kept the bustling crowds circulating fluently so that they don’t collide with any circulating sets, leaving Jones a free hand to concentrate on the comportment of the soloists.

The results are quite remarkable. Everything seems close-up, partly thanks to Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting, which combines a tight grip at the front with atmospheric warmth to the rear, and partly thanks to the foreshortened angles of the sets, which keep the soloists pressed under the proscenium. Jones and Antonio Pappano, who conducts, have worked hard with the cast of young(ish) soloists to keep them moving and interacting naturally, so the chemistry is some of the finest you’ll see on the modern operatic stage. There’s not the slightest awkwardness among the four friends. Florian Sempey’s Schaunard looks genuinely shocked to discover his comrades preferring to eat and drink his food and wine rather than listen to the pompous account of how he acquired it, and the teasing of the landlord Benoît doesn’t rub the wrong way as it so often does. Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo and Nicole Car’s Mimi really do seem to fall head over heels in love, their contrasting characters and tragic fate emerging inexorably from their introductory arias into “O soave fanciulla”, the great duet in which the first act’s impetuous dramatic ascent culminates. Car, in particular, is remarkable for the way every tiny gesture of voice and body radiates Mimi’s tragic innocence, so that one has a new sense of the character’s self-awareness. Joyce El Khoury’s soprano is a touch underpowered but she makes for a fabulously outrée Musetta and a superb counterweight to the compellingly hot-headed Marcello of Mariusz Kwiecien. The contrast between the two pairs of lovers is also superbly defined, so the dramatic ironies of the parallel duets in the third act resonate profoundly. Schaunard and Colline (Luca Tittoto) are both excellent, fully present when required, as if their roles were bigger than they really are, nicely blurred when not. All are served superbly by Pappano, whose short-range style is tailor-made both for Puccini and for the tightly synchronized movement of the production. The orchestra, of course, know this score better than any other, but they sound fresh and keen.

If the production has a weak spot, it’s that it may prove to be over-reliant on the exceptional qualities of its soloists. As many a studio make-up artist will tell you, not everyone looks great in high definition. But in its maiden voyage, the show sails beautifully. It left me feeling quite overwhelmed, not merely by the opera, but by a sense of sheer gratitude towards everyone who had made it. One of the virtues of Jones and Laing’s staging is its cleverly calibrated transparency, the way its occasional glimpses of the lighting rigs or the naked rear wall serve to bring the signifying elements of the set into relief. While this has become something of a cliché in contemporary staging, here, in this most fraternal of operas, the device offered a powerful reminder of the realities at work in the show, the people whose absurd talent and long years of grinding work make an opera what it is. I don’t think that’s what is meant by verismo, but if it is, I’m certainly buying it.

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