Review: ‘La bohème’ at the Royal Opera House

Covent Garden’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera

Mariusz Kwiecień and Nicole Car. Image: Catherine Ashmore/courtesy of the Royal Opera House 

The Royal Opera House welcomes Giacomo Puccini’s timeless opera La Bohème back to Covent Garden. Thanks to Richard Jones’s sizzling new production of this wintry romance, audiences are rediscovering Puccini’s haunting music, conducted with customary élan on respective evenings by Antonio Pappano, Paul Wynne Griffiths and Nicola Luisotti. 

La Bohème tells a simple story of love, loss and sorrow among bohemians living in the poorest quarters of 19th-century Paris in mid-winter. In an exciting Royal Opera debut, Benjamin Bernheim takes the role of the penniless poet Rodolfo, who burns his play to keep warm and falls in love with the shy but loving Mimi, a poor seamstress dying from tuberculosis, played with great feeling by Nicole Car.

Nicole Car and Mariusz Kwiecień. Image: Catherine Ashmore/courtesy of the Royal Opera House

One of the production’s most touching moments comes when Puccini’s ‘Che gelida manina’ (‘What a cold little hand’) weaves its magic. Rodolfo, emanating both strength and tenderness, enfolds Mimi to his heart and she, in turn, nestles her head in the nook of his arm, singing of her simple life as a seamstress and her new-found love. There is a sweetness and an innocence to their romance that forms a sharp contrast to the raw passion of Rodolfo’s artist friend Marcello, played by the charismatic Mariusz Kwiecień and his on/off lover Musetta (Joyce El–Khoury). Hers is the role of the fiery femme fatale, dressed in red, who in Act 2 unforgettably struts along the top of the restaurant tables, ignoring bewildered diners as she and Marcello together sing of her womanliness and his jealousy in ‘Quando m'en vo’.

‘La bohème’ production. Image: Catherine Ashmore/courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Stewart Laing’s spectaular sets were a sight to behold, interplaying visually like a folding picture book to reveal the various aspects of Parisian life, from plain, slightly depressing lodging scenes and snowy vacant landscapes to colourful, decadent Parisian streets with miniscule Burlington Arcades. We were also treated to a wonderful supporting cast in pristine Victorian costumes, taking us back to a less complicated world. And then there is that unforgettable ending – a searingly honest finale of life, death, friendship and the transformational power of first love, all under the cosmic spell of that Paris winter moon.  

‘La Bohème’ is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 10 October and is playing in cinemas from 9 October to 24 February 2018.  

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