There is freshness in the thinking, however: the garret is, for once, really minute, a head-banging maze of joists and obstacles with a difficult door and cussed stove. And when the room-mates finally let rip and scrawl saucy caricatures over the inviting blank walls and timbers, it means that Mimì dies, not decorously and aesthetically, but under seamy covers and surrounded by lewd drawings, for whatever some operas suggest death from poverty is rarely on a velvet cushion.
It is all high jinks, however, until the most shattering delay in all opera – the realisation of other onlookers of Mimi's demise and her lover Rodolfo's slow cottoning on. And oh that cry of anguish! It hurts to think about it. As Rodolfo, American tenor Michael Fabiano fulfils all the high expectations about what this big, rangy voice would bring to the role, and while it feels as if even at full throttle there is still something in the tank, there is affecting quieter music which it will be good to hear more of too. Fabiano returns to Covent Garden for Rigoletto in December.
His seamstress lover Mimì, Australian soprano Nicole Car, is fast becoming an ROH favourite, after her jilted girlfriend Micaela in Carmen and love-sick Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. As Mimì she is as warm as her frail body is cold, as she shivers into love with Rodolfo over a flickering candle, the voice growing fuller with this unexpected pleasure and later scooped hollow by disillusion. Car is a wonderfully expressive singer. Her character is a meticulous craftswoman, her lover a splashier poet and writer, and this shows in their singing, their relationship tender and besotted.
Jones considers carefully the careers of his characters – the visual art of Marcello (marvellous Mariusz Kwiecień), the music of Schaunard (Florian Sempey sending up the profession), the thoughtfulness of philosopher Colline (a fantastic performance here too, from Luca Tittoto), and Rodolfo's words. Put that lot together and you have the skills to make an opera, which Jones illustrates by showing some of the workings of his own production – you can see into the wings, lighting is exposed, stage hands trundle visibly. Artists make art to mirror life, he seems to say, but the events that unfold in their midst will always trump anything that the imagination can devise.
Everything else is as traditional as a tin of Quality Street, all boot, bonnets and bows (design both dapper and dowdy by Stewart Laing, with Mimi Jordan Sherin's bright lighting adding to the effect that the whole is a created illusion). This look has the merit of being trend-proof, and as the previous production of La Bohème lasted Covent Garden for 41 years, could stretch obligingly to the year 2028, never in fashion, never out.
Royal Opera House music director Antonio Pappano whips through this delectable score at a pace that makes an emotional crash landing inevitable, and there is lovely wind playing.
Opera newbie or old hand, you will go a long way to find a more thoroughly thought out, better sung, firmly staged production of La Bohème than this. Luckily, you have until July – Covent Garden is giving this new show star billing, and with good reason.
La Bohème is sung in Italian with English surtitles. A live relay is at cinemas London-wide on Tuesday 3 October, with an Encore screening on Sunday 8 October. Click here for more details. Booking for the newly cast 2018 performances (16 June - 20 July), opens 4 April 2018.
|What||Puccini's La Bohème review , Royal Opera House|
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
11 Sep 17 – 10 Oct 17, 11 performances, with two Saturday matinees at 2PM
|Price||£9 - £230|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|