Nothing pleases the tradition-conscious Viennese more than continuity and, like the annual Opernball, this picture post-card production of La bohème by Franco Zeffirelli has been resurrected every year since its 1963 première. Certainly some revivals have been a lot more impressive than others. It would seem that the raison d’être of these annual Bohèmes is not necessarily to show-case fabulous new artists, but simply to maintain a tradition – whether the singers justify the revival or not.

The production is classic Zeffirelli, visually seductive with as much extraneous stage business as possible. Act II mobilized a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds, including a docile donkey which looked old enough to be an original cast member. The bohemian’s garret was exactly as described in the Illica/Giacosa libretto and Act III was suitably bleak and snowy. Unfortunately the excellence of the venerable production was not matched by the quality of singing.  

Clemens Unterreiner was an adequate Schaunard, but the wonderfully named Ryan Speedo Green was a disappointing Colline with serious projection problems. “Vecchia zimarra, senti” was somewhat successful but this was more attributable to the sparse (and pianissimo) orchestration than solid vocal technique.

As an ardent, youthful Marcello, Alessio Arduini was consistently convincing. He also had the best diction of the evening, which is not surprising considering he was the only Italian in the cast. Regrettably his voice is not yet sufficiently developed to deliver a vocally satisfactory performance. There were some mellifluous tone-colours in the mid-range, especially evident in the “O, Mimì, tu più non torni”duet in Act IV, but his top tended to spread and lack focus. The lower register had a paucity of resonance and projection. If his vocal quality ever reaches his stage credibility, Arduini will have a dazzling career. As the man-hungry Musetta, glamorous Moldovan soprano Valetina Naformiţă rather shamelessly milked the role but was at least entertaining. The excessive rubati in “Quando m’en vo'” was irksome as she has a solid, albeit slightly astringent vocal quality and didn’t need to resort to self-indulgent distortion of the melodic line.

Jean-François Borras' Rodolfo displayed a very clean, bright, forward-placed lyric tenor. There was some good mezzo-voce and a generally secure top although the high C on “speranza” at the climax of “Che gelida manina” was jarringly sharp. There was diligent observation of the dynamic markings and correct pianissimi. Unfortunately, Borras’ stage presence leaves a lot to be desired, and his acting skills are rudimentary.

Of particular interest was the African-American soprano Angel Blue making her Staatsoper debut as Mimì. Certainly Miss Blue has received positive reviews for her portrayal of the role at the ENO, but there seemed something missing. Her intonation was generally precise and eschewed extraneous vibrato but she consistently failed to imbue the right tone and word colourings. This was largely attributable to the fact that her Italian diction was incomprehensible. There was some well-formed phrasing (eg. the soaring crescendo on “ma quando vien lo sgelo” rising to a powerful A natural on “è mio” and the D flat major scale on “serbarla a ricordo d’amor” in Act III) but the pensive “i fior ch’io faccio, ahimè non hanno odore” at the end of the aria lacked poignancy. 

Whilst Simone Young's tempi were not as deathly drawn-out as when she conducted Bohème at The Met, there were still some alarming excesses. For the most part the ensemble sections were taken at lightning pace while the set pieces and arias were almost lugubrious – Musetta’s aria being but one glaring example. There was also a tendency towards stentorian fortes rather than dulcet pianos. The score abounds in pppp and even ppppp markings which may be difficult to achieve with qualitative accuracy but should at least be approximated. Notwithstanding, there was some fine playing from the Staatsoper Orchestra and the legendary string sound was as ravishing as ever – the Act IV orchestral recapitulation of the “fremon già nell’anima” theme being but one memorable example. Unfortunately there was very little else which could be described as ‘memorable’ in this routine performance.