Another year, another run of La bohème. Yet this second revival of Richard Jones’s 2017 staging needs a little more emotional clout if it’s to deliver something of lasting impact. Opening night offered reliable performances but nothing lingered in the memory other than a staging of striking contrasts marked by startling austerity and wilful extravagance that brought on a bout of visual indigestion.
Minimalism versus maximalism seemed to be the defining feature of this production where Stewart Laing’s bare necessities frame a lavishly conceived Café Momus. The opening and closing Acts are determinedly stark; an almost bare attic, save for a single chair and stove topped by exposed roof joists that afford little indication of student habitation, at least, not until crude scribblings later appear on its rafters. Sometimes short on atmosphere, especially when Mimì and Rodolfo’s candles go out on a too-brightly lit stage, the endeavours of Jones and revival director Julia Burbach depend on strength of characterisation and chemistry to bring this tubercular tragedy to life. Act Two is given a budget-busting trio of stylised shopping arcades that slide away to reveal a ritzy restaurant interior. The beautifully detailed Parisian splendour is undoubtedly impressive looking, as too Laing’s opulent costumes, but singers and actors are squeezed into the available space with all the subtlety of a tyre lever. Yes, it’s a lively spectacle with children from Tiffin School and a ceremonious marching band providing additional colour. But overall it looks messy.
A hut doubling for a pub occupies Act Three’s bare wintry stage where the complex on-off relationships between the principal characters are explored with some consideration. Notwithstanding a background of falling snow, the absence of distractions here allows us to reflect on Rodolfo’s emotional turmoil, bored with Mimì yet unable to relinquish her completely. If the inner lives of the individuals were as focused in earlier scenes this might have built towards a more intense demise of its central character.
There is plenty to gratify the ear in dependable vocal performances even if they don’t quite leave you breathless. Simona Mihai as Mimì (a late replacement for an indisposed Sonya Yoncheva) combines the fragility of a consumptive seamstress with purity of tone, convincing in her introductory aria and compelling in her farewell that closes Act Three. Her Rodolfo is taken by American tenor Charles Castronovo; from the start a credible poet-dreamer with a rewarding gilt-edged tone that opens effortlessly for ‘Che gelida manina’, sung with authority and securing the evening’s most generous applause.
Completing a well-defined Bohemian quartet are Andrzej Filończyk as the happy-go-lucky Marcello, Gyula Nagy as a boyish Schaunard and Peter Kellner as the sombre Colline who brings ample gravitas to his coat aria. Cameo roles are agreeably portrayed by Jeremy White as the gullible Benoît and Eddie Wade as the put-upon Alcindoro sugar daddy to Aida Garifullina’s attention-seeking Musetta who pulls out all the stops for her waltz ‘Quando m’en vo’.
Emmanuel Villaume coaxes much fine orchestral detail from Puccini’s masterly scoring and fashions a fluid account with an acute ear for balance allowing cast and chorus their moments of glory.