As a writer I’ve always been somewhat seduced by the romantic image of the starving artist living high up above an uncaring city in a freezing garrett. However, I suspect the reality would be quite awful. This delightful production of Puccini’s La bohème (1896), currently playing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, very much concentrates on the fantasy.
Our four poverty-stricken bohemians – Rodolfo the poet (sung by American tenor Charles Castronovo), Marcello the painter (Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk), Schaunard the musician (Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy) and Colline the philosopher (Slovakian bass Peter Kellner) – are very good natured and rather contented with their lot. They have unexpectedly come into sufficient money to celebrate Christmas Eve and that is enough for them.
This second revival of Richard Jones’s production is ably directed by Julia Burbach, employing a light touch that brings out the humour of Jones’s work. It opens in the freezing attic home of the titular bohemians. The set is stripped back and bare, the lighting stark. It draws you in immediately.
The singing here is superb. Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo is particularly strong. Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as his lover Mimì seems less assured at the start but soon finds her voice. Her acting remains convincing throughout.
This is very much an opera of contrasts and for Act II, Stewart Laing’s set smoothly transitions from stripped down to opulent, as the action moves to the streets of Paris and the wonderful Café Momus. In direct opposition, too, are the demure Mimì and lively, vivacious Musetta, performed by Russian lyric soprano Aida Garifullina in fine voice. She’s playful and flirtatious and a joy to watch.
Yoncheva really comes into her own in Act III; her vocal chords have seemingly warmed up and she commands the stage. Her singing is exceptionally powerful and moving. Dying and abandoned by love, her Mimì here is a far cry from the carefree girl of the first half.
We return to that theme of contrast. The levity of the first two acts has disappeared and the severity of Mimì’s illness is revealed. The final act provides a fine balance between humour and tragedy and is touchingly performed.
This is a largely faithful version of Puccini’s classic, with a light touch and a sprinkling of humour among the tragedy.
This production of La bohème is on at the Royal Opera House until 27 May. Tickets are on sale now.
La bohème stars Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo and Sonya Yoncheva as Mimì (ROH 2020; Tristram Kenton).