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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème. Opera in four acts, (1896)
Rodolfo, Michael Fabiano (tenor); Mimi, Nicole Car (soprano); Marcello, Mariusz Kwiecien (baritone); Musetta, Simona Mihai (soprano); Schaunard, Florian Sempey (bar); Luca, (bass); Benoît, Jeremy White (baritone); Alcindoro, Wyn Pencarreg (bass); Parpignol, Andrew Macnair (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
rec. 11 September 11, 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Stage director, Richard Jones
Set designer, Stuart Laing
Lighting designer, Mimi Jordan Sherin
Video Director, Rhodri Huw
Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Sound formats: LPCM 2.0. dts Digital Surround
Booklet notes in English, German and French. No Chapter list or timings included
Subtitles in Italian (original language) English, German, French, Korean and Japanese
OPUS ARTE OA1272D DVD [110 mins]

Well, all good things come to an end. There have been few more realistic production sets in the UK, let alone at Covent Garden, than John Copley’s 1974 staging of La bohème that has seen many revivals - twenty-five I believe, since its premiere. I doubt if the director here expects to match that number, even though the production is shared with the Teatro Real, Madrid, and the Lyric Opera, Chicago. Whereas Copley’s staging was packed full of detail, and the production littered with felicitous comings and goings, a different approach is apparent from the start here. There are no views over the rooftops of Paris, no paintings in the garret where the students reside. Indeed, one might think that the overall staging had been done on a strict minimum budget basis if it were not for the extravagance and splendour of the Act 2 staging, with its sumptuous representation of shopping arcades, despite their not having appeared until after the siege of Paris in 1870. The garret accommodation of acts one and four is Spartan indeed, not merely lacking in a bed for Mimi to expire on, but everything else except a rather small, and primitive, stove in which the poet stuffs his writings to help keep the residents warm. The supporting struts of the roof must have inhibited sight lines from the upper seats and I cannot help but think that utility was the name of the game to pay for the Act 2 set. The setting of Act 3 further alerts my thoughts. The customs post next to the inn, where Marcello is painting, Musetta singing and where Mimi arrives in some desperation, has no physical existence. Yes, the snow is falling, as it had been before curtain up, but there was no physical sign of a customs post and the inn looks like a small shed in a field with Marcello reduced to painting cartoons, or whatever, on the outside.

On the music side I personally find the singing rather average for a major international house. Nicole Car as Mimì makes an immediate vocal impact in her interpretation and maintained a good quality of singing and characterization throughout. Her appearance on stage, at the entrance to the garret seeking a light for her candle, is marred by her unnecessary and startling physical collapse, and even quicker recovery - more the director’s fault than hers, I suggest. Simona Mihai, schedule to take over as Mimì later in the run is a sparkling Musetta throughout; her waltz song in Act 2 is a vocal highlight to match her acting. Some of the men are less successful in their contributions, Michael Fabiano lacks grace of phrasing and is often too loud, singing through rather than caressing the words. Mariusz Kwiecien is better in his acting and singing, creating a much fuller character, but he does not grace the duet with Rodolfo in the manner of his solo singing. Luca Tittoto is suitably sonorous in his farewell to his overcoat, but hardly impacts on me at all, whilst Floan Sempey’s Schaunard is nondescript and bland at best. Musically, Pappano on the rostrum is the main saving grace of the evening. He seems to give his best in Puccini. I wish some of the singers loved their phrases the way he does, and without losing the thrust of the music and plot.

Contemporaneously, I have watched the 2017 recording of the Royal Opera House Madama Butterfly in the production from 2003 by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier and which has had several revivals. It was, I believe, Pappano’s first shot at the staging and I wondered why he could not draw from the men singers here the same luxurious phrasing and detail he does in that performance, particularly from the two female principals, the two male principals having much less to sing than their feminine counterparts. Or is it his empathy for the female characters in Puccini’s operas that draws the best from him, hence the male soloists here come off second best, too?

Looking back at what I have written, I am only too aware that a colleague gave this not merely the imprimatur of Recording of the Month, but included it in his Recordings of the Year, but for me it has few virtues and I doubt if it will see the inside of my player again.

Robert J Farr

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge (Recording of the Month)



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