La bohème at Royal Opera House review: a potent, unsentimental but Covid-struck staging

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

When Richard Jones’s production of La bohème was new in 2017, views were polarised between those who volubly mourned the passing of the lavish naturalism of John Copley’s venerated production and those stimulated by Jones’s novel, quirky approach. Revisiting it for the first time since 2017 I was struck anew by just how potent such an unsentimental reading could be.

The stripped-timber of the Bohemian garret, fiercely lit and devoid of any kind of student clobber, establishes the frame of irony, continued in the Quality Street Parisian arcades of Act 2. But the latter is the biggest victim in Dan Dooner’s Covid-era revival: with the need to circulate staff and customers so that there are never more than six at a time, Café Momus is no longer the rendezvous of tout le monde. Many chorus members are necessarily offstage, the children reduced from 20 to 10 and the visual spectacle of the parade has gone altogether. The act now begins and ends on an empty stage.

Danielle de Niese is an admirable Musetta (Tristram Kenton)
Danielle de Niese is an admirable Musetta (Tristram Kenton)

The students’ horseplay in the final act involves the daubing of multi-mammary graffiti on the walls of the garret. That and the stark lighting make for an alienating backdrop when the dying Mimi is helped in. Yet the staging ultimately achieves poignancy in its own terms when the casting of deep shadows almost obscures the graffiti, highlighting the pallor of Mimi’s face into the bargain.

The cast is uniformly impressive. Anna Princeva’s robust if skilfully modulated Mimi defies her physical condition, while Joshua Guerrero’s excellently sung Rodolfo seems all the more winningly vulnerable for his lithe, flexible tone. Boris Pinkhasovich’s exceptionally strong Marcello, and the fine Schaunard of Cody Quattlebaum and Colline of Gianluca Buratto complete the quartet. Danielle de Niese admirably traces Musetta’s development from knicker-waving temptress to compassionate friend.

Renato Balsadonna, previously the company’s chorus director, ably coordinates his former choristers on and off stage. More than that, he conducts with immense sensitivity, unafraid to let the reflective moments make their mark. Whatever is lost in the sumptuousness of strings in Mario Parenti’s reduced orchestration is more than made up for with a telling horn counterpoint here, a singing cello line there. It’s very skilfully done, as is the whole slimmed-down, stripped-plank show, even if passing the IKEA store in Tottenham Court Road on the way home I had a sense of déjà vu.

Royal Opera House, to July 6, Also available on ROH Stream

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