Wednesday, October 22, 2008


October 11, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Puccini’s Bohème is revived for the 22nd time in the production by John Copley. That surely is a record of some kind. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s time sets were first seen in 1974, John was then forty-one. He still looks like a rather scruffy, mischievous urchin, full of naughtiness, adored by singers, indeed everyone he meets or works with. I mean no disrespect when I say I don’t think he has ever done a production that was epoch-making or absolutely brilliant. But then he has never done one that was less than adequate in the best sense of the word. You can rely on Copley to serve the composer and the librettist; never does he give the impression that he thinks he is more important than they are, he is not trying to make one aware of John Copley rather than the opera he is directing. He would never bring Brünnhilde on with a paper-bag over her head or Canio singing his big aria with his pants down. Seeing La Bohème in his production again brought back memories of Bohème over the years at, and even beyond Covent Garden.

Beecham; “Your Majesty, can you tell me, which is your favourite opera?”
King Edward: “Bohème”.
Beecham: “May I ask you Majesty, why”?
King Edward:”It’s the shortest.”

Maybe it is, but after two quite long intervals, the main, big curtains did not descend until twenty-past ten by which time the audience was well satisfied, even anybody seeing the opera for the first time would have a good idea of Puccini’s best-loved and most-performed work. I often say to myself that I shall give up going to opera if the day ever dawns when act four of Bohème does not make me gulp with emotion, possibly shedding a tear. And why did Puccini choose to end it with the coda of Colline’s coat arietta? But how right he was, how potent!

Marian Nowakowski (as Colline): Psst! How does it go?
Ian Wallace (as Marcello) sings Collines opening phrase which is all on one note.

Christopher Maltman seemed to sing slightly louder than anybody else and he somewhat dominated the cast with his Marcello.

But Wookyung Kim, from Seoul, showed a pleasing toner, musically and vocally satisfying (we are getting used to the continental drift where opera singers are concerned: recently in Australia Verdi’s penultimate opera was performed with a black Desdemona and a white Otello).

We wondered why Bjørling could not be bothered to pick up the key, but when his heart packed up and he died a few weeks later we realised why. At least he got through the performance in London that time. What a voice! The perfect mixture of head and chest voice with that god-given and alcohol-soaked timbre.

Hei-Kyung Hong having returned to her native land, Mimi was sung by the Greek soprano Alexis Voulgaridou (no English substitute?) and her voice and personality were more than adequate if less than memorable.

Dame Nellie was heartbroken when her favourite Rodolfo Jean de Reszke retired and she found at first that the stocky, cocky Caruso could be tiresome when he quacked a rubber duck in her face when she was a Mimi a-dying. Nor did his Schaunard appreciate it when he went to put on his hat and found that Caruso had filled it with water. But she came to like his voice!

Roderick Williams is one of my favourite artists. Whether he has a main part or, as here, Schaunard, he always gives a superb performance as regards voice, music and histrionics (he is a good composer too).

New Zealand Anna Leese was Mimi’s friend Musetta, good voice, pleasant personality without setting the Fleet River on fire.

Usually kind and generous, Dame Nellie could be bitchy occasionally as when she was standing in the wings and sang –along with Musetta, above all trying to blot out Musetta’s final top note. Yet Mary Garden, the first Melisande and not given much to praising other singers wrote that she never heard a more beautiful sound in her life than Melba’s off-stage top C at the end of act one. And Lyuba Welitsch was sensational as Musetta, the best waltz song ever, at the end of which she hurled herself like a torpedo into Paolo Silveri’s arms.

The production was straightforward, content to let the singers and the music work out Puccini’s unerring stage sense and his inexhaustible flow of stunning tunes and enchanting orchestration. Despite the pleasure of the first two acts it is the third which grips the emotions deeply, the purely operatic couldn’t-do-it-in-a-play-quarrel of Musetta and Marcello simultaneously played out with the despondent Mimi and the on-off loving care of Rodolfo. Infinitely touching. The conductor here must take credit; Christian Badea steered well, faithfully observed Puccini’s carefully designed pauses and made the death scene work.

Sir Thomas: “Mimi (Lisa Perli, the Purley queen) please don’t sit up for your dying phrases but stay lying down.”
Lisa Perli: “But Sir Thomas, I cannot give a good performance lying down.”
Sir Thomas: “On the contrary, Miss Perli, I hear you’ve given some of the best performance of your life in that position.”

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