In Puccini's La Bohème, philosopher Colline bids farewell to his handsome coat – not because it is worn to shreds, but because Mimì, the gravely ill lover of his flatmate, needs warmth, medicine, anything to relieve her suffering. The pawn shop near his Paris garret is a familiar port of call. He sings his adieu to his 'old friend' – the coat, not Mimì – in one of the opera's many show stopping arias.
On opening night of this triple-cast, three-week-long revival of Richard Jones's production, Colline was sung by Romanian bass Alexander Köpeczi with warmth and strength. This was an attractive ROH debut, and I will remember Köpeczi's sweet lament the next time a treasured garment goes in the war on clothes moths.
The power of that short, heartbreaking goodbye illustrates the many relationships in La Bohème, which are well defined in Jones's production, revived by Simon Iorio. On the surface this is the story of poet Rodolfo, playing at poverty but with great expectations, and his embroiderer neighbour Mimì. But there are so many other pairings, some touching, some comic.
Standout comedy comes from mischievous Musetta, simultaneously tormenting her sugar daddy and showing off to her ex-lover, painter Marcello, in a riotous restaurant scene that seems to get wilder with every revival since the production's 2017 debut. Marching from table top to table top, ripping off her knickers, playing to the gallery, Musetta is sung in the first cast by soprano Lauren Fagan, having a ball and singing with such wit and vocal wizardry.
'I always used to sing along to musicals, and I always wanted to be one of those kids up on the stage,' she told Culture Whisper in 2018. She's certainly living the dream, which is lucky for us.
Musetta and grumpy Alcindoro; Musetta and jealous Marcello; Mimì and confidant Marcello; Rodolfo and flatmate Marcello; and yes, Colline and his coat ... these are just some of the important relationships alongside the central couple, and they are really well defined here.
The cramped living space that the young creatives share in Stewart Laing's design is plausible, but so cumbersome that scene changes are slow. However, the enticing shopping malls that attract a brightly dressed crowd on a Dickensian Christmas Eve unfold beguilingly, and a snowy winter has real chill.
Two other house debuts stood out on first night: Russian baritone Mikhail Timoshenko as an engaging Marcello and American soprano Ruzan Mantashyan as a Mimì who has both fragility and determination.
Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera at most performances. In tenor Saimir Pirgu she had a Rodolfo with his own idea about tempi, and volume, but I defy anyone not to wake up the morning after the night before with a head full of Puccini's lush music.
La Bohème is sung in Italian with English surtitles. It is a co-production with Teatro Real, Madrid and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Further performances are on 25, 27 (mat and eve), 29, 31 Jan; 1, 2, 10, 11 (mat and eve), 13, 16 Feb
|La Bohème, Royal Opera House review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
24 Jan 24 – 16 Feb 24, 14 performances, start times vary. Running time 2hr 35min, including on interval
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