This is a fond farewell to John Copley’s 41-year-old production, revived almost every season since its Royal Opera House debut in 1974. Its retirement at the end of this run is not before time, but its remarkable longevity deserves to be celebrated – a tribute as much to Julia Trevelyan Oman’s lavish and detailed mid-19th century Parisian designs (which, with pleasing continuity, recycle at least one costume from the first ROH production of 1897) as to Copley’s staging, which conveys the romance, laughter and tears of Puccini’s most popular opera with clarity, vividness and affection.
Every great tenor and soprano of the past four decades has appeared as penniless poet Rodolfo and his doomed tuberculosis-suffering lover Mimi – Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna, Freni, Te Kanawa, Cotrubas, Gheorghiu, to name just a few. Recent casts have been more b-list, but the ROH is sending off its longest-running production in style with two of the hottest opera stars around. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is so glorious vocally it’s easy to forgive her old-school synthetic emoting. Joseph Calleja, from Malta, has matured into an artist of substance – his thrillingly powerful, freely soaring tenor is the real deal. It’s a first-rank partnership, well-matched by impressive turns from Americans Jennifer Rowley (Musetta) and Lucas Meachem (Marcello). Conductor Dan Ettinger gives the singers plenty of space, and the ROH orchestra plays magnificently.
Copley’s is not the last word in La Boheme – and, in truth, the production often looks its age – but it will be a very tough act to follow.