Luciano Pavarotti may have enjoyed the moniker “King of the High ‘Cs,” but the TRUE high “C” king of the 21st Century, having flitted effortlessly through a career filled with an abundance of top notes, finds himself the star of this Richard Jones revival, a production now in its fourth year.
I WAS to have reviewed Juan Diego Flórez’s debut in this very role at the Opernhaus Zürich, Switzerland in 2019 until COVID-19 put paid to that commission, but I always assumed that he would be worth the wait. I have to say that on this performance, despite some exquisite singing at times, the jury may still be out.
Richard Jones’ Bizarre Staging
From the outset, the somewhat bizarre staging significantly detracts from the austere, frugal, squalid environment Puccini envisioned. Here, designer Stewart Laing depicts the Bohemians attic as a sterile, pentagonal, seemingly ultra-modern log cabin-type structure, a chic loft conversion that is over illuminated by a plethora of powerful lights that our heroes could never have afforded to switch on. This created a very bright, almost clinical atmosphere that not only made it difficult for the principal characters to imbue it with any real emotion, but also made a total mockery of Mimì and Rodolfo’s romantic interaction with candles. In addition, it made a bigger mockery of the line from their famous duet “O soave fanciulla, o dolce visodi mite circonfuso alba lunar”, (O loveliest of maidens, O sweetest vision, bathed in the soft glow of a moonbeam).
At the cessation of Act one, the curtain remains up where we get to witness the stagehands slowly, manually glide this pentagonal contraption away from the front of the stage and replace it with a selection of further mobile capsules. These, however, were all the more different for being somewhat ingenious in both concept and design, depicting Parisian shopping arcades. These, in turn, are subsequently further rotated away to make way for the Café Momus itself, a vibrant bustling, animated scene that confirms Act two as a spectacular visual affair and the standout display in the whole opera. That said, the parade of children who accompany toy seller Parpignol, along with the military marching band that brings the act to a close, seem to be both superfluous and perfunctory, and I question the need to include them in modern productions, displayed as they are, in such an almost conveyor belt manner.
The interval and fall of the curtain spares us, (temporarily), from the spectacle of more “behind the scenes” set changes, but the third Act reintroduces further oddity. The sole construction, the wooden Tavern, begins to move halfway through the Act; at first, so imperceptibly that one gives consideration as to the possibility of hallucinating, but no; a definite, receding, arc motion of the wooden building by invisible hands until it traverses across the stage from its starting position on the left-hand side of the stage to end up at the far rear on the right. This does facilitate a rather poignant and visually splendid backdrop for our two lovers to disappear into the ‘distance’ amid swirling snow, but the illusion could surely have been created without the peculiar moving shed. When almost out of view, and after having sworn to each other that they would wait until the Spring to part, Rodolfo and Mimì can clearly be seen to exit the rear of the stage in separate directions and it wouldn’t surprise me if the star tenor wasn’t drafted in to help push the pentagonal wooden beamed attic to the front of the stage for Act four, resulting in several more minutes of awkwardness that served absolutely no purpose, detracted from the emotion of the occasion and could have been totally avoided by simply dropping the curtain before the start of the final act.
And so we are treated to the final, doom laden conclusion of Puccini’s masterpiece, played out under the harsh, sterile lights that serve to sap the poignancy and emotion of the occasion, in my opinion.
That’s not to say that Stewart Laing’s designs are a total mess. As already intimated, the second act was one of the most visually stunning and resplendent “Bohème” second acts I’ve ever seen; dynamic, colorful and convincingly busy. The shimmering, glistening snow which perpetuates much of the opera also goes a long way towards creating the much-needed ambience negated by the harsh lighting and clumsy set changes, and conveys convincingly the harsh coldness and bleakness of the occasion. So, too, the smoking chimney with its narrow plume, present in the first act atop the attic where the fruits of Colline’s exploits brought firewood to the humble gathering and again in Act three where the smoking Tavern denoted some human warmth in the desolation.
Jury Still Out
Despite the staging issues this is a supremely strong cast whose performances and vocal endeavors managed to transcend most detractions.
Juan Diego Flórez’s Rodolfo, at times, was almost reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” with his almost wide-eyed innocence, and he peppered his performance with wonderful comedic touches, particularly when Mimì collapses from exhaustion in Act one after having climbed the stairs to the attic, and he stands above her supine body in “mock shock” confusion for a few moments before tentatively nudging her with his foot. He performs a couple of leaping heel clicks with gusto in Act two in the markets and bumps his head on the wooden rafters of the attic when effortlessly navigating the ladder. Vocally, he possesses an inarguably beautiful instrument. He lingered for what seems an eternity on ”La Speranza” the top C in his signature aria, “Che Gelida Manina’ and the final, similar note on “Amor” in his “O Suave Fanciulla” duet was sublime.
However…. whether it be because of Flórez’s limitations in this role, by virtue of an insufficient transition yet made into this darker repertory, or by over enthusiasm of the orchestra under the baton of Kevin John Edusei. or possibly even a combination of both – the truth is that on this performance, I found the star tenor at times difficult to hear. The beauty and sweet resonance which are the hallmarks of his instrument were still in evidence, but he seemed to physically resort to having to force himself at times in an attempt to rise above the orchestra and this introduced a hard edge to the voice. Several of his climatic high notes were virtually lost in orchestral crescendos and his first, anguished “Mimi,” on realizing his lover had expired at the opera’s end, was completely drowned out. Flórez has never been renowned for having a “big” voice, but his supreme, silky phrasing and divine color has always effortlessly resonated throughout his audiences in the Bel Canto repertory for which he was famed. I would like to see another performance of him, in this role, perhaps with a different conductor.
American soprano Ailyn Pérez took on the role of Mimi here, and whilst she didn’t initially convey the impression of being truly won over by Rodolfo’s charms in the first act, she sang with utter exquisiteness and by the final act, her performance and declarations of adulation for her lover were completely convincing. Much of her score, notably in her “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi” aria was infused with wonderful elements of sotto voce that still managed to rise above the orchestra and permeate the theatre.
Her interactions with Marcello in Act three where she comes to seek his help in ending her relationship with Rodolfo are glorious and evocative, and her “Donde lieta usci,” her farewell to her lover when he finally emerges from the Tavern, was unequivocally moving and deserving of far greater applause that it received. Her scenes in Act four, with her final utterances, “Qui, amor…sempre con te! Le mani…al caldo… e dormire”, were particularly heart-rending.
The vocal hurdles that seemingly faced Flórez here posed no problems whatsoever to Moldovan Andrey Zhilikhovsky whose powerhouse baritone positively shook the opera house at every turn, at times overpowering his fellow performers.
Making his Covent Garden here as Marcello, this strikingly handsome young man stole many of the scenes he appeared in. His rich, dark, stentorian vocals dominated throughout. His interactions with his sometime lover, Musetta were both hilarious and, by turn, powerfully touching and convincing. His nonchalance and indifference to her increasingly wild attempts to attract his attention in Café Momus where every other patron was wide-eyed and transfixed with her antics was comedic genius. His anger and hurt at the climax of their argument in Act three where he hurls Musetta’s belongings from the Tavern towards her was almost tangible.
His duet with Rodolfo, “O Mimì, tu più non torni” in where they lament and pine for their lost loves, was breathtakingly beautiful, where he employs a soft, mellifluous quality to convey his heartache.
Speaking of which, Australian soprano, Danielle de Niese performed one of the most characterful, animated and wonderfully magnetic Musetta’s I have ever witnessed. Her performance at the Café Momus in a vivid, bright red dress can only be described as a showstopper as she meanders, intoxicated and most precariously, from tabletop to tabletop, somehow removing her underwear in the process to deliver them on to the head of the object of her desire, Marcello. Such comedic bravura and yet in the same scene she delivers a convincing and emotion laden “Quando m’en vo.”
Her utterance of “Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta che non debba morire” in the final Act was as heart-wrenching as it is an antithesis to her first appearance. To portray a character with such diverse and polar opposite facets is no mean feat and de Niese pulls it off remarkably well, all enveloped in a gorgeous, seductive and emotive lyric-soprano voice.
British baritone Ross Ramgobin got to play a delightfully comical Schaunard who hams it up with his tale of how he acquired the spoils he shares with his fellow Bohemians; but Puccini never intended anything but frivolity for this baritone who must take second place to Marcello. Ramgobin’s voice is sweet and assiduous enough and he conducted himself here with great whimsicality.
Michael Mofidian, the Scottish bass-baritone, completed our heroic quartet of Bohemians as Colline. He delivered a quite splendid, rich “Vecchia Zimarra.” He sang this with stoicism and dignity, and I was amazed that his dark, warm, vibrant tones elicited not a single smatter of applause from the audience at the cessation of his aria.
British actor and choreographer Danielle Urbas served in this production as Revival Director and whilst impossible to quantify her involvement as compared to Richard Jones’s original vision, it remains unclear who came up with the notion of the puerile, mindless, and nonsensical rabid scribbling and drawing of obscene images on the walls by the four boys immediately prior to Mimi and Musetta joining them for the denouement in the final Act.
And yet, the resultant direction served up some quite inspired, comical, original and most poignant touches. For example, at the conclusion of her fight with Marcello, in the third act, Musetta gathers her belongings from the floor and trudges away mournfully, her long, unravelled shawl painting a wide trail in the snow behind her as the lovers Rodolfo and Mimi disappear into the distance holding hands. A curiously similar pathos was conjured up as Marcello delivers a punch to the nose of Musetta’s admirer, central to their row, who took an inordinate amount of time to stagger away into the distance nursing his face, his dejectedness and intoxicated bemusement almost palpable……Rodolfo’s teasing of Mimì with the key as she makes half-hearted attempts to repeatedly grasp it from his hand……..and the simple, fussless passing of Mimì as opposed to the dramatic, symbolic, frequently employed dropping to the floor of the hand-muff providing a little warmth in her final moments. Such small, simple yet powerful evocations. that almost, (but not quite), make up for the aforementioned artwork ludicrousness.
Conductor Kevin John Edusei eventually elicited some wonderful magic from the Royal Opera House orchestra, but he took time to settle and at times his musicians produced brash and overpowering strings that overwhelmed all of the singers, not just Flórez.
An earlier, although recent, unkind press review of a “La Bohème” described it as entertainment for rich people who like to watch poor people suffer. I would suggest that those who subscribe to that view are happy to pay several hundred pounds to watch Ed Sheeran or Beyonce on a massive screen whilst being ignorant of the fact that one can watch wonderful opera like this for a mere, few pounds. With today’s unrest, uncertainty and, for many, frugality, perhaps Puccini’s most famous opera, rather than a bygone curiosity for the wealthy, will become a modern work for our time, for all.