The important questions first. Did I cry? Yes. Did I walk home humming the tunes? Obviously. Does Musetta make a glamourous entrance into Café Momus? Yes, complete with fur cape. Does it snow? Yes. Are there waiters on rollerskates bearing trays of lobster thermidor? Yes. (Okay, you may not have been expecting that one.) Francesca Zambello’s La bohème at the Royal Albert Hall does pretty much everything you would expect it to do, with plenty of dazzling extras. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Gooch, sounded suitably lush, creating a warm, rich sound which makes the most of Puccini’s beautiful ideas; even the infamous Café /Parpignol /Military band melee, with its conflicting time signatures, comes off reasonably unscathed. But Houston - we have two problems. And one major bugbear.

Jessica Rose Cambio (Mimì), Sean Pannikar (Rodolfo), Michael Chioldi (Marcello) © Paul Sanders
Jessica Rose Cambio (Mimì), Sean Pannikar (Rodolfo), Michael Chioldi (Marcello)
© Paul Sanders

The first problem is the size of the space. The world is full of huge, barn-like opera houses resounding with gorgeous music: a space of this size should not be a problem for opera (certainly not a problem requiring the dubious solution of microphones, of which I seriously disapprove). But using the Royal Albert Hall in the round feels unmanageably large at times. It’s all too easy for musically complex moments (like the end of Act II or the emotionally fraught double duet at the end of Act III, where Mimì and Rodolfo reunite while Marcello and Musetta fall apart, to get dislocated, disjointed and lost. There is plenty of intricacy in La bohème and even fireworks in Puccini’s invention. But here, the fireworks tend to explode just out of earshot and I’m not sure that’s fair to the composer.

The second problem, probably not unrelated to the first, is a directoral approach which has paid exceptional attention to the period detailing of the busy, exciting Christmas market and café scenes (complete with a Victorian strong man, a pair of smartly-dressed 1940s lesbians, an elegant transsexual who seems to be Musetta’s gay best friend – and why not?), but very little to the emotional truth of the actual story. Rodolfo and Mimì declare their love, and reveal their innermost hearts, facing resolutely away from each other. Marcello, finally won over by Musetta’s outrageous behaviour in Momus, opens his arms and waits for her to rush into them... when she’s finished singing. Later, Rodolfo calmly watches the dying Mimì climb his stairs and reach the top alone, before carefully picking her up and carrying her tenderly to his bed to die. These are not the actions of people in love. They are the actions of singers waiting their turn to belt their big number. So much of Zambello’s approach seems geared towards ease of performance, rather than conveying truth, that although I still cried (I always do), I felt this was the least emotionally compelling La bohème I have yet seen. The complicated stage business can, at times, make the opera feel slow and artificial, which is it not, and tempts people to overact.

La bohème © Paul Sanders
La bohème
© Paul Sanders

So much for the two problems. The major bugbear, for which I do not blame Zambello or anyone in the company, is the surtitles. Do we really have to have tiny screens with lurid green capital letters, located at neck-defying angles around the auditorium? It is so easy (and cheap) to project surtitles in a civilised way: fringe opera productions truly understand this. Even with fairly young and fairly healthy eyes, they were a trial: please, Royal Albert Hall, get them changed. Puccini via Pac-Man is not a hot look. We just don’t need to do it that way any more.  

The singing, when it wasn't being distorted by the microphones (something which was a particular trial for Sean Pannikar as Rodolfo) was lovely. For me, Michael Chioldi was the strongest of the company, not only singing, but also acting well as a gruff, bewildered, romantic Marcello with a touch of Liam Neeson (always a plus). Pannikar (Rodolfo) and Jessica Rose Cambio (Mimì) negotiated their music with aplomb. Sadly, their acting didn’t bring across the sensuality these lovers surely require, but their love scenes had a touching, awkward innocence whenever they engaged each other dramatically. Anna Leese was a restrained Musetta, who sang well but kept much of her firepower in reserve in the moments where a bit of unrestrained hedonism would have gone a long way. But if she wasn’t quite sultry enough in temptress mode, she was adorable in angel-of-mercy mode in Act IV (a key moment for all Musettas and the highlight of Leese’s performance). Stefano da Peppo and Joshua Bloom were charming as Schaunard and Colline.

Altogether, this is a riotously fun, dazzling performance, and a great introduction to opera for children, but the West-End polish slides us a little too smoothly over Puccini’s heartfelt message.