Royal Opera House; Kings Place, London
Richard Jones’s snowy 2017 La bohème is settling in at Covent Garden. And Kings Place takes on the entire universe, with a little help from Brian Cox
Each encounter with Puccini’s La bohème – assuming the performance is up to scratch, which the Royal Opera’s latest revival is – makes you rethink the elements that make this work a masterpiece: time-proof and foolproof, as a blunt critic early last century put it, bemoaning the grandmotherly Mimìs, screeching Musettas and overweight Rodolfos he’d endured over the years (he’d have to watch his adjectives today). The plot jumps awkwardly between its four “tableaux” acts. Aspects of the story don’t quite make sense. Yet Puccini spins his material into a perfect mesh of mirth and tears. His theatrical instinct is faultless, and no other composer teases out strands of melody so apparently effortlessly and rhapsodically.
In the case of Bohème this means, famously, from first encounter to full-blown love in a matter of minutes for the seamstress Mimì and the poet Rodolfo. Their big Act 1 duet, O soave fanciulla, is a reliable test, early on, of the evening’s emotional temperature. The Romanian-born British soprano Simona Mihai (a late replacement, who sang the role for the ROH last year and plays Musetta later in the run) and the American tenor Charles Castronovo scored highly, with the conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, pacing this slowly unfurling music with well-judged control. In this score, the woodwind weaves and soars, now buried in the texture (the exuberant oboe tune is near the start), now singing its own melody, so often voiced by solo clarinet. Though the ROH players must know this music inside out, it sounded fresh and alive.