La Bohème, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, September 2017

Forget the fine new production for a moment – this was a fantastic performance. The musical dynamics of Antonio Pappano’s conducting allowed Puccini’s score to express itself in every note.

Rodolfo, Mimi and the key, all images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

His consummate musical direction supported a gripping performance by Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, with a sweetly sung yet hugely powerful Mimi by Nicole Car, both eliciting spontaneous cheers for their Act I arias. It seemed it could get no better, yet in Act III the duet between the wonderful Marcello of Mariusz Kwiecien and Nicole Car’s passionate Mimi, followed by a superb duet between Marcello and Rodolfo, had huge emotional power, magically supported by the orchestra.

Café Momus with Musetta teasing Marcello

Yet there was more than just the music here, because the placing of singers in Act III complemented the expanding and narrowing distances between the two pairs of lovers, and during the excellent Mimi/Rodolfo duet the small tavern moved diagonally back across the stage, slowly opening up a wide space for the emotions to expand. Movement of stage sets is a defining feature of Richard Jones’s new production, with the transformations from Acts I to II, and III to IV carried out in full view of the audience. Likewise for the Act II setting as the chorus enter a bare stage before three shopping arcades swing into place, later moving away to allow the Café Momus with its smart white table cloths to take centre stage, which in turn gives way to street lights for the marching band at the end of the act.

The arcades in Act II

The bohemians’ garret for Acts I and IV, a cramped space under supporting roof beams, has a skylight through which Rodolfo has climbed to the chimney of their tiny fire before singing of the Parisian chimneys smoking into the grey sky, and later climbs again to call down to his friends on the street below. Unfortunately the roof beams hid Colline’s face from part of the audience during his Act IV cloak song, but the final moments of death were beautifully rendered. As everyone except Mimi and Rodolfo line the back wall of the garret, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting subtly enhances the contrast between light and darkness while the earlier sets from Acts II and III, deliberately visible in the background, vanish. Those moments of happiness, flirtation and emotional tension are now gone forever.

Final moments

A very fine performance from Simona Mahai as a feisty Musetta who teasingly drops her knickers on Marcello’s head in the Café Momus scene, along with Luca Tittito as a serious Colline, and Florian Sempey very endearing as a charming Schaunard. But the top accolades must go to Pappano for his memorable and powerfully sensitive conducting, and to Richard Jones for a staging that boldly avoids the shadow of John Copley’s much loved 1974 production.

Performances continue on various dates until October 10, with a live cinema relay on October 3 and pre-recorded BBC Radio 3 broadcast on October 7 — for details click here.

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