This run of La Boheme marks the final time Copely's handsomely dishevelled production graces the Covent Garden stage before it is retired for good. In a protracted farewell, this final cast is one of starry quality, headed by the elusive Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja.
It would be a while before the warm lushness of Puccini's most indulgent score penetrated the chill of the Parisian garrett. An odd sense of displacement interrupted the famous first act. Full of sparkling little jokes, shining like gems, the ponderous disconnect between stage and pit produced a ragged tempo which tampers most disconcertingly with Puccini. In La Boheme, where the orchestration is organic, mimicking the nuances and rises of speech, such liberal conducting is prone to elongate already extended passages, creating a general sense of sluggishness. Part of the fault must be chalked up to brief rehearsals; it was most apparent in Che gelida manina and O soave fanciulla that conductor and singer struggled to anticipate the other. Ettinger must refrain from waiting for the singer a guide them instead; the greatest vice that can befall a Puccini opera is over-indulgence - it can become unbearable in its saturation. I do not doubt that this fault that will dissipate over the run.
Even working with such drawbacks, the quality of the cast cannot be overlooked. Beyond his overcooked Act 1 aria, Calleja was in good voice, clear and penetrating, although he must learn to connect more with the production. However, the making of the evening, as ever in La Boheme, lay with our Mimi, where Netrebko brought lustre and charm, if not quite the weight of believability. Yet, one must put their qualms about Netrebko's vocal suitability to one side and forget it outright, for it is inevitable. Any person who considers themselves to have any ounce of operatic knowledge will know that this magnificent singer has, in recent years, openly embraced the full thickness of her voice. She has traversed far and wide, Iolanta once minute, Lady Macbeth the next; she has already left the days where she could thin her voice to match Mimi's gentle tone far behind. Yet, there is still much to enjoy in her Mimi, even in the absence of youthful incandescence. Her voice remains hugely expressive, now endowed with both volume and gravitas. Her Mimi in Act 3 was a thing of great majesty; it is with eager ears and glad heart that Covent Garden welcomes her return and I can only hope that her next sojourn in London enables her to showcase her newfound tone to its most devastating effect.
It may be said, however, that the most enchanting performance of the night lay with the other three occupants of the bohemian attic; Meachem's Marcello, Vino's Colline and Del Savio's Schaunard. When bandied together, they exuded a true sense of camaraderie, the sense of jovial warmth that brings heart and life to even the bleakest situations, a brief but captivating return to the heart of this historic production.