New productions of La bohème don't come around that often at the Royal Opera. John Copley's venerable staging lasted for 43 years and the one before that – Peter Brook reviving a pre-war production – had a decent innings running from 1948. I doubt this new effort from Richard Jones will last half as long, not because it's controversial in any respect but because it's tepid. After his affectionate treatment of La fanciulla del West for ENO and his devastating Suor Angelica at this address, Jones’ Bohème tastes disappointingly vanilla.

Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Nicole Car (Mimì) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Nicole Car (Mimì)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Many of the familiar Jones tics are absent – no animal masks, paper bags or flock wallpaper – but this is still recognisably a Jones show, mainly due to buildings which shunt around and his clever use of perspective. Stewart Laing’s sets enjoy variable success. I suspect we’re somewhere in the Marais towards the end of the 19th century, around 50 years later than Henri Murger’s original setting for his Scènes de la vie de bohème on which Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa based their libretto. The four bohemians inhabit a sparsely furnished garret that looks a bit Ikea chic for the period. Mimi Jordan Sherin lights Act 1 so brightly that any dependency on candles is rendered null and void. The Barrière d'Enfer of Act 3 is broadly traditional, although the tavern is toytown-tiny in scale and has to glide off as the two pairs of lovers part their ways in order to crank the garret back into place for Act 4, which at least negates a second interval (Copley Bohèmes were a long affair).

<i>La bohème</i> Act 2 © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
La bohème Act 2
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Act 2 is the scenic highlight, brilliantly evoking three bustling Parisian arcades, the excellent Royal Opera Chorus decked in their finest Quality Street splendour. We then glide across to a classy Café Momus which looks elegantly refined, but still allows a chorus of children to charge through it during peak dining hours.

Jones directs his principals with a steady hand, but a lot of the gestures are stock-in-trade and he never quite gets to the emotional heart of the opera. The Act 3 quartet is most affecting, but any heart-tugging during Mimì’s fading moments are compromised by concerns that soprano Nicole Car must suffer great discomfort propped up against the lads’ stove. There’s gentle humour in Rodolfo’s first encounter with Mimì, but the horseplay in Act 4 is lame, the bohemians reduced to scrawling cartoons over their walls and beams.

Michael Fabiano, Luca Tittoto (Colline), Mariusz Kwiecień (Marcello), Florian Sempey (Schaunard) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Michael Fabiano, Luca Tittoto (Colline), Mariusz Kwiecień (Marcello), Florian Sempey (Schaunard)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Vocal performances on opening night were no more than decent, with Nicole Car’s Mimì easily the pick of the bunch. The Australian lyric soprano doesn’t possess the most glamorous voice, but she uses it with great intelligence and sincerity. She applied colour deftly to her aria “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”, blossoming radiantly at the line “April's first kiss is mine”. Opposite her, tenor Michael Fabiano sang at a relentless forte as Rodolfo for much of Act 1, often pushing ahead of the beat, but settled to display a wider dynamic palette later on. Mariusz Kwiecień sang a robust Marcello, despite having to paint at an invisible easel. He enjoyed his exchanges with Simona Mihai’s lively Musetta, whose table-top antics in Momus included whipping off her knickers and landing them on the back of Kwiecień’s head. Mihai has a brighter soprano than Car; it will be interesting to hear her as Mimì when she switches roles later in the run. Florian Sempey and Luca Tittoto were adequate as Schaunard and Colline, Tittoto’s lighter bass turning his “Coat aria” into a tender farewell rather than the sepulchral dirge you sometimes hear.

Nicole Car (Mimì) and Mariusz Kwiecień (Marcello) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Nicole Car (Mimì) and Mariusz Kwiecień (Marcello)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Sir Antonio Pappano, back to conducting with a baton, led a typically athletic account of Puccini’s score, strings often sounding lean but with plenty of pungency from woodwinds and brass. However, all his efforts couldn’t quite enliven Jones’ bland staging. Chimneys wafted smoke and snow flurried, but there was no moonlight, nor – as yet – any Parisian magic in this Bohème.