For my second La bohème of the week, it was the Royal Opera House’s turn, with Richard Jones’ 2017 production back again, following its socially distanced run in 2020–21, with Danielle Urbas directing this revival. Compared to Glyndebourne’s current production, currently part of their Tour, Jones' is a relatively conventional setting, with mostly bright and colourful staging, apart from a more desolate Act 3. There’s snow, vivid chocolate-box costumes for the chorus, smoking chimneys and a suitably sparse – if overly bright – garret set for the outer acts. 

Juan Diego Flórez (Rodolfo) and Ailyn Pérez (Mimì)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Act 1 was initially marred by over-weighty if lush playing from the orchestra, muting the chance for the four friends to spar and create much rapport. Conductor Kevin John Edusei got this more under control for Rodolfo (Juan Diego Flórez) and Mimì’s (Ailyn Pérez) meeting, with a Chaplinesque Flórez lingering effortlessly (borderline indulgently – but if you’ve got it…) on his glorious top notes, and Pérez highly convincing with tender warmth and innocence building to rich passionately rich tones.

La bohème, Act 2
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Stewart Laing’s Act 2 sets are impressive, cramming in a series of spectacular showpieces. Three beautiful Parisian shopping arcades slide into place and open up, ready to be filled by the colourful, bustling chorus. Then a bright, stylish Café Momus, a little upmarket for our bohemians, but by squeezing a lot of people into its shallow depth, the almost two dimensional result cleverly suggests a Renoir tableau. However, the core cast are somewhat uncomfortably forced to sit in a line behind their tables at the front – are we looking at The Last Supper here? Danielle de Niese (Musetta) created much needed movement and colour here, with some precarious table-top attention grabbing. Her Musetta was light and playful, with a clever mixture of subtle and not-so-subtle displays: the former capturing her frustration and increasing desperation to be noticed in her facial expressions and asides; the latter involving her knickers (spoiler alert – removal and throwing thereof).

Danielle de Niese (Musetta) and Chorus
© ROH | Marc Brenner

There’s then yet another slightly convoluted rotation of sets to create a lamppost-lined boulevard for the crowds to cheer on the marching band.  To be fair, I’ve never understood the point of this inclusion, as it always seems a superfluous distraction – the same goes for the children’s chorus, performed here with gusto, but again forced into a slightly uncomfortable line at the front of the stage. One further thought on the rotating staging: the ‘deconstructed’ nature of showing us the movement of one set to another between acts, curtain up and blinding lights shining, smacks a little of ‘look how clever this is’. Would anything be lost here if the curtain was dropped?

Andrey Zhilikhovsky (Marcello) and Ailyn Pérez (Mimì)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

By contrast, has a sparse, wide open set for the Barrière d’Enfer, with the tavern reduced to a small shack giving tantalising glimpses of warmth and action through its rear windows. The large open spaces here bring some rather gestural acting from the leads as they sing in opposite directions, despite the intimate emotion of their interactions. However, the act ends with compelling performances from all four principals, the two couples’ response to their relationships contrasted effectively at either side of the stage. Flórez and Pérez’s passionate ‘shall we, shan’t we?’ dilemma was evident and convincing, and Andrey Zhilikovsky’s Marcello developed into a more well-rounded character here, with a clear bond between him and Rodolfo, as well as jealous frustration with Musetta. De Niese also shifted powerfully from her Act 2 antics into greater emotional depth of character. 

Juan Diego Flórez (Rodolfo) and Ailyn Pérez (Mimì)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

For the denouement, the return to the brightly lit garret doesn’t quite sit with the mood, and this is not helped by the reduction of the playful antics of the four friends with them scrawling and drawing on the walls (why?) – it is hard to take the final tragedy seriously when we can still see schoolboy drawings of genitalia on the beams above dying Mimì. However, the cast pulled together emotionally, and Michael Mofidian delivered Colline’s ‘Coat’ aria with sombre dignity. Flórez captured well Rodolfo’s slightly clueless final dawning of reality, and Pérez was equally moving – although their rotating embrace to position each singer forward during their duet was rather clumsy. But when it comes, the final result packed the requisite punch.

On balance, a strong cast, and a visually stimulating Act 2, with fine playing throughout, once dynamically under control, from the orchestra. But for a more believable and convincing ensemble, despite its bleaker setting, Team Glyndebourne wins out for me. 

***11