OPERA / Cosy balancing act: Edward Seckerson on La Boheme revived at Covent Garden

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's probably still the only production of La Boheme where Musetta gets to play billiards during her waltz-song, but in most other respects this old John Copley staging (revived by Richard Gregson) looks, acts and behaves much as you would expect it to: solidly traditional.

Poverty still has its charms in the painterly designs of Julia Trevelyan Oman - a faded romanticism, like every canvas of the period you've ever seen. Snow falls prettily at the Barriere d'Enfer, the Bohemians' garret is shabby but picturesque - capacious, in the operatic sense. It doesn't look cold, but then neither does Marcello's naked model. He's the artist, you see, and since he plainly has no money to pay her, one presumes that she poses (and freezes) for love, and art. Everybody in La Boheme freezes for love and art, but still it comes out warm and cosy.

As, ultimately, does this revival. Puccini's masterly Act 2 - still the most eventful 20 or so minutes in all opera - is a little too broad in its business - lots of visual gags, inside and outside the Cafe Momus. Trouble is, the intricacy of Puccini's plotting and characterisation is easily thrown out of alignment with too many distractions. It's a delicate balancing act. Musetta's waltz-song had to contend with huge reactions from the floor, Rodolfo at one point tying the agitated Marcello to his chair with his own scarf. A nice touch - unless you happened to be Karita Mattila, the glamorous Musetta. Mind you, she can hold her own: a larger than life presence, classy and sassy.

She certainly gave us tart and heart, though she should watch her intonation and maybe find more breadth for her big number's climax. Exciting, though, to have a voice this size to crown that great ensemble where Marcello finally takes up her song and Puccini is in his heaven.

Youth is on his side here - it has to be if Boheme is really to come alive on stage. These Bohemians were likeable, lively, believable - they seized their moments, sharpening and refreshing the 'operatic' horse-play wherever possible. The bonding between Anthony Michaels-Moore's handsomely sung Marcello and his best mate Rodolfo came beautifully into focus as the tragedy of the final scene engulfed them. Jerry Hadley's Rodolfo was easy to love. He's a natural rogue on stage: playful, engaging. But the bright-eyed voice has come on by leaps and bounds over the years. True, he approached the climax of 'Che gelida manina' a little like an ice-dancer preparing for a tricky jump, but the affection, care and detailing of his work is a delight. And in Deborah Riedel he had a Mimi of immense promise. Her manner is touching, the sound lovely and true - warm, evenly produced, enriched with an affecting flutter of vibrato. We'll be hearing much more of this young Australian. The same may well prove to be true of the hyperanimated, Israeli-born conductor, Daniel Oren - though on this showing I anticipate mixed blessings. He drove the score eagerly, feistily, daubing on the primary colours. But there was a tendency to over-accent, to lunge at the emotional hot-spots. He didn't breathe with Puccini: those big expansive phrases radiate their own intensity; they must find their own space and shape. But still the tears came. Don't they always.

In rep at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (071-240 1066).