The Scènes de la vie de bohème described by Henri Murger in his mid-19th-century newspaper stories, later romanticised by Puccini, portrayed a state of mind as much as a social condition. His “scenes” were about art, youth and poverty. They were populated by characters who, though hard up, were rich in imagination and spirit. Instead of earning and consuming, these bohemians simply lived, and lived simply. What possessions they owned – lines of poetry, books on philosophy, earrings and coats – they gave away. Like it or not, the message of La bohème is anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois – a message that metropolitan opera houses must simultaneously sentimentalise and idealise in order to make it palatable to their middle-class, middle-aged audiences.
The Royal Opera’s 1974 staging, directed by John Copley, does this better than most. It paints pretty pictures, keeping the eye entertained and amused. Its latest revival, freshly powdered and wigged, reminds us that part of the action – the Café Momus scene – takes place on Christmas Eve. It also provides a suitably soft landing for Rolando Villazón’s return to the London stage. Two years ago vocal problems almost brought his career to an end. The Mexican tenor has bravely clawed his way back, but the voice comes and goes. The more effort he puts in, the less we seem to hear. Some notes are squeaked, some just mimed as if he hopes we won’t notice. His acting offers compensation: he plays himself, passionate and clownish.
Vocally, if not histrionically, Villazón’s Rodolfo is eclipsed by the Mimì of Maija Kovalevska, a promising, evenly produced lirico spinto who needs to melt some of her excellent east European schooling with warm Italianate phrasing. Audun Iversen’s Marcello and David Bizic’s Schaunard make life-size bohemians, and while Stefania Dovhan’s Musetta can’t mask a voice of limited interest, her nightmare-with-a-heart characterisation has irresistible panache. Donald Maxwell’s Alcindoro and Jeremy White’s Benoît add experience and style, and the performance is topped by Mark Elder’s conducting. The Royal Opera usually makes do with a routinier for its Bohème revivals, but Elder shows – in his colouring and shading of the score – what an expert Puccini hand can do.