La bohème, Royal Opera House, London


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The Independent Culture

Life has not been easy for Rolando Villazon these last few years. Invasive throat surgery stopped him singing, with no guarantee of any return to form. When he did make a come-back his performance was savagely dissected by the critics.

He tells Radio 3 that he is now simply curious about how he will sing, rather than being fuelled by ambition, and he’s still rebuilding his voice. Last year he sang the title role in the Covent Garden ‘Werther’ with much of his old panache.

Returning to the Covent Garden ‘Bohème’ represents another stage of the journey. The opening scene, with its brilliantly-choreographed clowning, serves as a reminder of what a gifted actor he is, and with what balletic grace he moves (we later discover he does a very passable entrechat).

But the voice doesn’t sound auspicious: his thin - and now rather ordinary - sound seems blown off stage by Audun Iversen’s booming Marcello. And when Maija Kovalevska makes her entrance as Mimi he’s upstaged again, because this Latvian soprano is extraordinary.

Her powerful sound is wonderfully even with a silvered purity, and in character she’s grandly flirtatious: it’s largely thanks to Villazon’s charm as an actor that their encounter catches fire so engagingly. The scene in the Café Momus radiates its usual merry turbulence, with Stefania Dovhan’s minx-like Musetta causing jealous mayhem between her suitors, and with the street-kids and military band adding to the confusion.

In the wintry scene outside the Barrière d’enfer, when Rodolfo sings his despair, we are less moved by Villazon than by the subtle way conductor Mark Elder underscores the counterpoint between the trivial spat between Marcello and Musetta and the tragedy brewing for their friends. Dovhan’s Musetta may find a new plangency in the final act, but Kovalevska’s approaching demise is not heralded by any suggestion of fragility in her singing: it is left to Villazon to wring our hearts, not through his voice but through the physical paroxysms of his grief.

Meanwhile it’s time to salute the unseen stars of this perfect production: its director John Copley, now a sprightly 79, and its designer, the late Julia Trevelyan Oman. With Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras among its Rodolfos, it has notched up 600 performances in 38 years, and its sturdy naturalism still feels fresh. Yes, there’s a moral there.