La Bohème, Calleja and Netrebko, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2015Posted on 24 May 2015
John Copley’s 1974 production of La Bohème — the longest-running in the Royal Opera’s repertoire — has been 41 years with the Company, and this farewell run is the last chance to see those glorious period sets by Julia Trevelyan Oman.
Sad, but at least the ROH is giving it a great send-off by starting the run with the dream cast of Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, and ending it with Placido Domingo in the orchestra pit. For these Netrebko, Calleja performances the admirable Dan Ettinger conducts in true Italian style, for me a hugely refreshing change from two months ago when a well-known British conductor in Berlin rendered this opera as light-weight Wagner.
But Puccini it is and Puccini it was last night with Calleja giving effortless lyrical warmth to Rodolfo’s emotional appeal, and Ms Netrebko’s iconic voice recognisable while still outside the Bohemians’ apartment in Act I. In Act III her vocal protrayal spoke of anguish as she hid behind the hay cart listening to Rodolfo and Marcello, and in Act IV her terrific dynamic control lent both power and frailty to Mimi’s all too brief life. When Rodolfo turns round and realises she has already expired, the spontaneity of Calleja’s reaction gave real feeling to a dramatic portrayal that had already expressed glorious poetic passion in Act I.
His bohemian companions worked well as a team, with the simpatico Marcello of Lucas Meacham, the urbane Schaunard of Simone de Savio, and the welcome bass depth of Marco Vinco as Colline, whose left-handed batting of the bread rolls in Act IV gave wonderful speed and vivacity to the playful scene before Musetta enters. Unfortunately Jennifer Rowley in that role seemed more fish-wife than sexy minx, despite obviously careful rehearsal. Under John Copley’s direction the chorus showed superb individuality as well providing a super vocal ensemble, but top plaudits go to Calleja and Netrebko. Their chemistry was pure joy to witness, with a beautiful duet ending Act III.
Nothing can continue indefinitely, however good it is, though I understand Copley’s iconic production, will not be destroyed until its successor has won audience approval. And it is a remarkable feat of staying power that Placido Domingo, the Rodolfo of the first performance in February 1974, will return to conduct the final performance on 16 July.
Performances with this cast continue on various dates until June 10, and then from July 9 to 16 with a new cast. Live broadcasts occur on June 8 for BBC Radio 3, and June 10 for screens across the UK — for details click here.