Purists might have winced at Opera North’s advertisement for its latest revival of La Bohème. ‘If you see one musical this year,’ it said, ‘see this opera.’ Such rhetoric might invite unhelpful discussion of the relative merits of each genre, but it also reflects the fact that this show is a refreshing, unfusty treat. Phyllida Lloyd’s updated production wears its 21 years lightly and, especially as revived by Michael Barker-Caven, is light on its feet, and unencumbered by the laborious attention to period details that we often see with Puccini’s warhorse (John Copley’s venerable production at the Royal Opera House, which starred the young Plácido Domingo when it was new in 1974 and which is finally going to be retired next year, is simultaneously the best and the worst example of this.)
To match the staging, Opera North had assembled two young casts, both of which I was able to catch, in matinée and evening performances on the same day. Here were two quartets of male Bohemians — each with its distinct routines and internal dynamics — who for once actually looked as though they might be living on the breadline in their garret (here a messy 1960s flat), and who actually looked and acted like friends. The two Mimì-Rodolfo pairings were so endearingly guileless and gullible that you easily believed that they could go from nought to frisky (plus head-over-heels in love) in a matter of seconds, even if their relatively small voices struggled to fill out the piece’s bigger moments.
Both of the Rodolfos were appealingly puppyish and engaging, even if they had to push hard (and often sharp) in the climaxes — Sébastien Guèze, in the first cast, was more guilty of this than Ji-Min Park. Gabriela Istoc’s Mimì had a bit more edge and volume than Anita Watson’s, but both phrased their music with gentle, beguiling musicality. Musetta’s diva-ish flouncing seemed to come a little more easily to Lorna James than to Sky Ingram, but both gave classy, convincing performances and were matched by the cleanly sung (and unusually hunky) Marcellos of Phillip Rhodes and Duncan Rock. Gavan Ring and John Savournin were each terrific as Schaunard (each with his different take on a Marilyn Monroe impression included in the Act 4 horseplay); Barnaby Rea and Jimmy Holliday were the likeable Collines.
Lloyd’s production is a bit unsure, admittedly, of how edgy it wants to be. It gives Marcello an unattractive temper and violent streak, for example, but ignores some darker implications of the period whose aesthetic it calls upon — the Café Momus becomes a diner, Act 3’s tollgate a nightclub. The Bohemians are a clean-living lot, too, in a world without the drugs (recreational or medical) that might, in a bolder updating, have played a part in precipitating or preventing Mimì’s demise. But with wonderfully flexible and idiomatic playing from the Opera North orchestra, and conducting of lucid fluidity from Andreas Delfs (for the first cast) and, in particular, the unfeasibly young Venezuelan Ilyich Rivas (born the same year as this production was first unveiled), such little niggles were easy to forget.
When Jonathan Kent’s Royal Opera Tosca replaced the old Franco Zeffirelli staging (first mounted for Maria Callas in 1964), some wondered what the point of it was: broadly traditional, albeit with a few exaggerated scenic gestures, it didn’t really have much new to say about the piece. First seen only in 2006, it certainly feels a lot older than Lloyd’s La Bohème. And the latest revival seemed to hark back farther still. Roberto Alagna’s Cavaradossi was sounding powerful but his singing was resolutely unsubtle; the Ukranian soprano Oksana Dyka, making her house debut, had old-school volume, but it was allied to a piercing acidity in the voice and a pronounced vibrato. His acting was cavalier and automatic, hers was rudimentary in the extreme: it felt as if the revival director Andrew Sinclair hadn’t had time in rehearsals to cover much more than the basic mechanics of the staging.
I rarely find either of the lovers terribly sympathetic, often relying on Scarpia — for me the opera’s most interesting character — to draw me into the drama. Here, though, Marco Vratogna (a replacement for Thomas Hampson) struggled to make up for an essential lack of vocal authority with hammy overacting, eventually expiring, with grunts and moans, like a wild beast succumbing to a tranquilliser dart. There were strong cameos from Royal Opera regulars — Michel de Souza livened up the stage in Act 1 with his appearances as Angelotti — but Oleg Caetani’s conducting was eccentric and indecisive. The contrast with Opera North’s youthful, endearing Puccini could hardly have been more pronounced.
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