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Farewell to Copley’s Boheme

6 Jun

I last saw John Copley’s production of La boheme at the ROH in 1987 (Domingo, Tokody and Allen). Although I’m an admirer of the opera, I’ve never particularly felt the need to go back. They’ve done it so often that it’s felt like one of those relatives that you feel you ought to visit but never quite manage to because there’ll always be another time. This is its last revival (though I understand Kasper Holten has said that he’s not getting rid of it just yet) before a new production by Richard Jones. Given that there was a moderately attractive cast, I felt that I ought to go along to see a piece of history. And I enjoyed the performance I saw on 5th June.

It is a masterpiece of a production from a technical point of view. The second act is wonderfully, effortlessly, naturalistically choreographed.  You don’t notice the sheer technical skill: everything looks right. There are the lovely, perfectly timed cameos for the chorus and actors, Musetta’s dog, the waiters, the child wanting his trumpet and the presentation of the bill to Alcindoro. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being completely carried away by the sheer brilliance of it. It’s a masterclass in how to stage a really complex piece of drama. Act III catches the cold and bleakness of the setting and, again, the detail and timing of the characters coming in and out was outstandingly done. The production is special partly for the gorgeous sets by Julia Trevelyan Oman and partly for Copley’s ability to set a scene and to manage the movement convincingly. If you want a “traditional” production of the opera you could not ask for better. But I wasn’t moved.

After seeing this, I dug out Harold Rosenthal’s OPERA magazine review of the opening run of the production. He generally liked it, but found those things which now seem to be its hallmarks – the “super realism” of Acts II and III – distracting from the music. That, too, was a performance that, according to him, didn’t pull at the heart strings. But, then, Copley’s productions rarely did – he was good at detail, atmosphere and comedy and relied on the singers to provide the intensity to move you and, perhaps, gave some less help than they needed. And this is probably one of the reasons why I’ve avoided going to this production regularly. It’s a frame that distinguished singers can slot into to give their versions of the leading roles where there may or may not be chemistry between them and they may or may not be convincing actors: you take pot luck as to whether you get a really memorable or moving experience.

The pot for this revival was mixed. We had a very well-nourished set of fairly middle-aged Bohemians.  It was hard to believe that any of them were really starving in this garret: clothes are immaculate, figures pretty full. This was not a cast where it was easy to believe in young love flowering or, for that matter, dying of consumption.

Joseph Calleja sang Rodolfo and very well. I find the slightly bleating quality of his vibrato off-putting but you can’t deny the elegance of the singing and the technical skill. He gives a lot of pleasure vocally even if you don’t quite get the sense of deep love and emotion that, say, Villazon provided. He acts, if that is the word, genially and amiably with little passion.

Anna Netrebko was Mimi. I enjoyed her singing very much indeed (though something went wrong with that final top note at the end of Act I). She made a sympathetic figure and, I thought, did her Act III aria very movingly indeed, singing the words expressively and making you believe in her predicament. Her deathbed scene was touching. Ultimately, however, I felt that I was seeing a very classy singer rather Mimi.

Jennifer Rowley made an excellent Musetta – seizing the opportunities for comedy and creating a very sympathetic figure. There’s a very strong personality there and she was the one person on stage who truly created a memorable, believable character – I was moved by her little outburst of tears at the end far more than by anything that was happening on the deathbed. Lucas Meacham sang Marcello superbly – it’s an ideal voice for the role. Other singers have been hotter blooded, more convincingly angry. Marco Vinco was a strong Colline and did the coat song very nicely. Simone del Savio struck me as rather an under-voiced Schaunard and rather anonymous.  With them you could sort of believe that they hadn’t eaten lately but you didn’t particularly get a sense of the bonded relationships. Jeremy White and Ryland Davies did excellent jobs as Benoit and Alcindoro respectively.

So this was a pretty strong cast that sang nicely but didn’t gel. I’ve seen younger, less gifted but better prepared casts move and interest me more even if the singing has been less impressive.

Dan Ettinger conducted a perfectly competent performance with the orchestra and chorus in pretty good form. I didn’t feel that anyone was particularly challenged or interested by his conducting. Incidentally, Rosenthal’s review described Domingo’s Rodolfo as the best sung since Bjoerling. Domingo will be conducting the last couple of performances here, presumably somebody’s idea of a special treat to celebrate the anniversary. I don’t suppose anyone will be describing it as the best conducted Boheme since Kleiber. Decisions like this make you wonder how seriously the house takes Boheme. Surely if this was intended to celebrate the passing of a well-loved production they might have got someone, well, better to conduct it – Pappano, say.

I’m glad I refreshed my memories of this production. I can see why the ROH has held on to it for so long. It’s a perfect frame for multiple casts: a strong vanilla production for tourists and first-timers and those who want to see their idea of Boheme and a night at the opera. People will miss it. But Boheme is a tougher, nastier opera than this production shows and deserves more. It’s good that this one’s going when it’s looking strong and crisp and people can still lament its passing, but I’m really excited to see what Richard Jones makes of it in two years’ time.