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La Bohème/Rigoletto

Royal Opera House

IFit's summer at the Royal Opera House, then it's Angela Gheorghiu. The Romanian diva enjoyed a successful run at Covent Garden in Faust last year and makes her stage debut in Tosca next summer, but for now it is yet another great tragic female role for the arch-traditionalist.

La Bohème provided the soprano with her Covent Garden debut in 1992, but it was two years' later that she broke through with La Traviata. It is not surprising that those are her greatest roles, because what roles they are - and let's face it, there's not too much confusion about the story lines: boy meets consumptive girl, boy loses consumptive girl, boy returns just as consumptive girl dies of... consumption. They don't make them like that any more, mainly because there are very few beautiful girls dying of consumption. Bloody National Health Service!

But whereas Verdi's Traviata is all glamour, light, big rooms and fine jewellery, Puccini's Bohème is set in the café society of Bohemian Paris, with artists, poets and philosophers struggling to make ends meet. It is a testament to La Bohème's popularity and durability that it has been performed over 100 more than La Traviata at the House.

The stage, a revival of Julia Trevelyan Oman's 1974 set, is dark and bleak. The performances, though, are anything but bleak. Bohème is arguably the greatest opera in managing the balance between humour and tragedy, and the humour comes from the four friends Marcello (Mariusz Kwiecien), Colline (Jonathan Lemalu), Schaunard (Grant Doyle) and Rodolfo (Tito Beltrán), the poet who falls in love with Mimi.

John Copley's direction also strikes the perfect balance, particularly in the crowded café scene in Act 2, which can be overwhelming, as does the marvellous Mark Elder with the baton.

Been Around

Gheorghiu is, as always, magnificent, yet she never totally dominates, mainly because of an excellent, if understated, supporting cast.

The Romanian, though, is not having it her own way in the glamour stakes this season. She has to share the limelight with another dark-haired beauty in Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whose singing is surprisingly powerful in the role of Rigoletto's daughter Gilda.

Netrebko's stunning looks have appeared outside the House for the best part of this year advertising forthcoming attractions, and she has been one of the most eagerly awaited of those attractions.

Her recital records have been warmly received, as was her performances of Dvorak, Puccini and Bellini at last year's Proms, and it is hard to believe that she has been around for almost as long as Gheorghiu, although with far fewer roles under her belt.

This has certainly done her no harm. Her voice has been developing in the meanwhile and where before she might have fallen into the trap of performing roles that were to strong for her voice, she has gone the other way; maybe daughter roles are too weak for her. I see beautiful woman with consumption roles on the horizon.

As seems the norm with David McVicar productions, and this is a revival from 2001, the set is on a revolving stage, which allows him to tell the story from more viewpoints than traditionally, although some of the crucial parts of the opera, such as the fatal stabbing of Gilda, is obscured from much of the audience. Also the creaking mechanism of a revolving set does not do any favours for conductor Edward Downes, who has joined other maestros in their eighth and ninth decades, such as Charles Mackerras and Lorin Maazel, enjoying Indian summers at the House this season (let's also not forget Andre Previn's 75th birthday celebrations at the Barbican, which has also been a delight and no more so than his conducting of William Walton's First Symphony).

Verdi's Rigoletto is the tale of a hunchbacked court jester of the same name, who pretty much pisses off most people he comes into contact with. Paolo Gavanelli is perfect in the title role but his world unravels when his daughter, who is infatuated by the Duke of Mantua (Piotr Beczala), is mistaken for a lover and is abducted as an act of revenge.

Tricked

This all happens after Scene 1 of the opening act which has an explicit orgy scene, with more parts of the human body in view than some of those sitting near me wanted to see. There were gasps and comments from what I can only imagine was a group on a day out from a woman's institute or even a Conservative Club.

Rigoletto is tricked into helping with the abduction of his daughter, but his ire is saved for the Duke, who pretty much jumps every woman he comes into contact with (La donna è mobile, "Women are as fickle as feathers in the wind"). This had already led to Count Monterone (Giovan Battista Parodi), the father of one of the Duke's conquests, to put a curse on Rigoletto after the jester had taunted him.

Rigoletto hires Sparafucile (Eric Halfvarson), an assassin, to kill the Duke, but Gilda wants to die in his place, although in reality it is her father she saves because Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena (Marina Domashenko), another to have fallen for the Duke's charms, decide to kill Rigoletto when he returns with their blood money.

Despite a slow start and the gratuitousness of the orgy scene, Rigoletto builds up into the usual cocktail of love, cheating, revenge and innocence betrayed. Gavanelli is magnificent in Rigoletto and let's hope we see and hear more of him soon. Netrebko, hopefully, can move on to more mature roles, she now has the voice for it.

Meanwhile, as the government appears to be bringing in name-and-shame legislation for smokers, perhaps it can do the same for serial coughers. One woman in front of me obviously turned up 24 hours late. She should have been at La Bohème rather than Rigoletto such was the coughing fit she had. In fact, she left her seat, smack bang in the middle of a row, during Act 1.

Another person spent some time unwrapping something in tin foil - either a tuna sandwich or a hit of heroin. And what is it with people opening and shutting bags with zips. Name and bloody shame, I say.

Review by Peter Wilson

Shorts

Since the above was written Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has sadly passed away.


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