At the Royal Opera House: Puccini’s “La bohème”

For my birthday this year, F surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La bohème at the Royal Opera House in London. (He’s the best.) This July at the ROH, John Copley directs seven performances of his iconic production of La bohème — set in 19th-century Paris — that is 40 years old this year. The staging is quite magical, thanks in part to great sets designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. There are a few different casts for this revival; we saw the first one, featuring Ermonela Jaho as Mimi and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo.

Entering the Royal Opera House, located in one corner of London’s Covent Garden, feels like entering a different world. Not an elite one, as you may think, but an old-fashioned one where people mingle with drinks and time slows down for a little while. The theatre itself may have something to do with that: dating from the late 19th-century, it’s sea of red velvet and gold ornament, complete with candelabras around the edges that you can imagine once held real candles.

inside the Royal Opera House

inside the Royal Opera House

The opera itself was great. Having seen a couple of Puccini operas in the past (Turandot at the Met and Madame Butterfly at the Kyiv Opera in Ukraine), I knew what to expect in terms of continuous music and general tragedy. I was particularly looking forward to La bohème because the musical Rent — based on Puccini’s opera — is one of my favorites. The ROH did not disappoint. Cornelius Meister led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a lush, Romantic rendition of the score and despite a few points when the orchestra overpowered the tenors, I hardly noticed the orchestra at all (which I think is how it should be in opera). Though the large ensemble scenes — particularly Act II — are somewhat hard to follow in La bohème, the arias are gorgeous.

In terms of the singing, Ermonela Jaho as Mimi stole the show. I’d never heard of her and was at first a little disappointed not to be seeing one of the bigger names (Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu will appear in the role for subsequent performances), but now I can confidently say that I didn’t miss the big names one bit. Jaho has lovely tone and an exquisite pianissimo on her high notes — her Si, mi chiamano Mimi gave me chills. She was believable as the shy seamstress and played the tragic heroine without melodrama. Castronovo (Rodolfo) had a lovely tenor and paired well with Jaho, though his swelling climaxes were often drowned out by the orchestra (not sure if that was because of where we were sitting or a genuine orchestra-voice balance issue). The other vocal standout was Jongmin Park as Colline, whose ‘overcoat aria’ in Act IV was beautiful and moving. Simona Mihai played a fine Musetta and the other supporting singers were strong.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first outing to the Royal Opera House (and who knows when the next one will be? Holy ticket prices!). Copley’s La bohème production is fantastic and magical, and the ROH delivers a great experience (though I do agree with the Guardian reviewer that it could do without the second interval). If you can get tickets, go.

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