There’s a simple litmus test for La bohème productions: at the end of the opera, at Rodolfo’s agonised wail of “Mimì”, are your eyes dry or flooded with tears? Last night, at the Royal Opera’s first revival of Richard Jones’ production, the answer was definitely the latter: I was in buckets. And it’s not like we don’t all know how the story is going to end, so it’s worth musing on what it is about this opera and this production that made that happen.

Maria Agresta (Mimì), Matthew Polenzani (Rodolfo) in Act 4 © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Maria Agresta (Mimì), Matthew Polenzani (Rodolfo) in Act 4
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The first key aspect is the commitment of the actors to their roles. Yes, I know they call themselves singers first and actors second – but in that last act above all others, their task is an acting one, to make us truly believe that we’re watching a dying woman, her lover in desperate denial and the embarrassed shuffle around a deathbed of people who would do anything to make things better but are inevitably clueless as to what that might be. Here, we had a cast whose commitment was total: in the curtain calls, Matthew Polenzani and Maria Agresta took longer than I have ever seen to come out of character and get a smile back on their faces.

Musically, that last act works because Puccini has spent the whole opera preparing you for it: you’re listening to the reprise of strong melodies which you have come to associate with good times and bad. I’m sure the Royal Opera Orchestra can play this stuff in their sleep, but conductor Nicola Luisotti had them on particularly fine form, ratcheting up the emotional tension at every reprise. Our six principal singers were all solid vocally as well as giving us fine acting: Agresta is a smooth-toned Mimì able to generate a lot of volume while remaining credible in the role, Polenzani is a lighter, more bel canto Rodolfo than I’m used to, which has the benefit of excellent intelligibility to add to pleasant lilt and clear timbre; Etienne Dupuis gave us openness and warmth to make a highly attractive Marcello; Danielle de Niese showed that she has the voice to match her strong stage personality as Musetta; Fernando Radó delivered Colline’s “Vecchia zimarra” smoothly; Duncan Rock was an amiable Schaunard.

Duncan Rock, Fernando Radó, Etienne Dupuis, Matthew Polenzani © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Duncan Rock, Fernando Radó, Etienne Dupuis, Matthew Polenzani
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Dramatically, the act works because Puccini has crafted the shifts in mood so carefully. The banter between the lads that opens Act 4 is essential because we desperately need comic relief after the extremely dark mood of Act 3, when we learn that Mimì’s tuberculosis will most certainly kill her. Jones and set designer Stewart Laing mirror this shift: while their Latin Quarter garret is a pleasantly light, airy place, the stage for the Act 3 Barrière d’Enfer is almost completely bare: we are focused 100% on the human tragedy that’s unfolding. The music also mirrored this, Luisotti taking the level down and the malleability of the phrasing up to allow Polenzani and Agresta’s voices to tug at our heartstrings.

Maria Agresta (Mimì), Act 3 © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Maria Agresta (Mimì), Act 3
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Act 3 is itself the more harrowing because Puccini has given us such hope and joie de vivre in Act 2. It’s a tricky act to stage, since we need both the interior of Café Momus and the street life outside. Where other designers solve this by artful movement of the singers and chorus, Jones and Laing turn this on its head by having the sets move around the singers, so chunks of Paris arcade slide in and out, ending with the Café Momus itself arriving to make its entrance on stage. The large chorus and children’s chorus are neatly choreographed and sing their hearts out.  For this act – and this act alone – sets and costumes are a riot of colour, with the tone set by Musetta’s scarlet dress. Even when she artfully removes her knickers to make the final breach in Marcello’s defences, it’s all good clean fun, aeons away from the tragedy to follow.

In fact, the weakest part of this staging is Act 1, where the attic is so bright and airy that any pretence of two lovers fumbling around in the dark would be impossible. Act 1 was still enjoyable, however, from many standpoints: the transparent good humour of the four lads, a show-stealing cameo from Jeremy White as their hapless landlord Benoît, and a genuinely touching “Che gelida manina” from Polenzani.

Café Momus: Danielle de Niese (Musetta) in red dress © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Café Momus: Danielle de Niese (Musetta) in red dress
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

You won’t walk away from this Bohème stunned by the vocal pyrotechnics or the photorealistic virtuosity of its setting. But it’s a beautifully performed ensemble piece in which the simple tragedy of young love cut short by untimely disease is put across powerfully and heart-rendingly. A treat.

****1