Puccini “La Boheme”, Royal Opera House

Posted on May 1st, 2012

Not just another revival of a venerable old staging but its 25th showing in the 50th year of director John Copley’s work at the Royal Opera House. They served up a cake and a vintage cast for the occasion – and the snow fell once more on the Latin Quarter swelling the Christmas Eve crowds at Cafe Momus.

Julia Trevelyan Oman’s grandly designed Boheme is what used to pass for social realism at the opera. It is, in every sense, a blast – from the past – 1974, to be precise; and so well made that no one is thinking of retirement just yet. It’s charming, it works. And with Semyon Bychkov in the pit radiating enjoyment and animation and more importantly nursing the very particular tempo-rubato aspects of Puccini’s score it felt as spontaneous as it was heartening. And Italianate, too.

Casting brought house debuts and a couple of old hands. Nuccia Focile’s Musetta slipped very cosily into the broad style of the production distracting us from the self-evident vocal wear and tear with “funny business” that could be read from the back of the amphitheatre. The luxury of Donald Maxwell as her aging toy-boy Alcindoro in the Momus scene meant that all her attempts at upstaging would be well-met downstage.

Meanwhile back at the garrett, Fabio Capitanucci’s Marcello was the genuine article – a mellifluous Italian baritone – growing in confidence towards his big reprise of the waltz song in the Momus scene and well matched physically and vocally with his fellow Bohemians: Matthew Rose’s sonorous Colline and Thomas Oliemans‘ Schaunard who played the moment of Mimi’s death with a perception that will read beautifully in cinema relays on the 17 May.

Carmen Giannattasio (Mimi) was nervous on her entrance (intonation slightly compromised) and overwhelmed at her curtain call. But whilst not perhaps a natural Mimi voice she looked perfect, her tiny frame shaken by big notes of big conviction and phrasing in the heart-rending third act that truly prepared us dramatically for a genuinely touching death-bed scene.

Her Rudolfo was one of the big stars of the moment – Joseph Calleja – and didn’t it show. Everything about his sound and delivery is personal – the openness, the portamenti, the gentle flutter of vibrato, the “covered” pianissimo spun to glorious effect at the close of “Che gelida manina”. You know it’s special, you know you are in the presence of a little bit of operatic history.

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