This year's Christmas treat at the Royal Opera House is Puccini's tearjerker in the timeless production directed by John Copley. (It carries on into January, with a live cinema relay on the 15th, then February and March bringing a change of cast.) This is the twenty-sixth revival of Copley's 1974 staging. Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs handsomely suggest nineteenth-century Paris and Copley's subtle guidance invites us to concentrate on the characters and the storyline.
Maija Kovalevska is an affecting Mimì, capturing well the vulnerability and decency of the ailing seamstress. The voice is impressively healthy, with shapely phrasing, but her vocal armoury rarely suggests that illness, let alone death, is looming. Rolando Villazón is her lover, the poet Rodolfo who is captivated by Mimì on her first, frail appearance. His singing and acting both tend to the exaggerated, with fortissimos forced and lower dynamics lacking presence. But these singers come into their own in Act III, outdoors in the snow, and genuinely connect. Stefania Dovhan inhabits playgirl Musetta's fickleness and self-centredness before being compassionate at Mimì's side. There are joys and laughs, too, as part of the bohemians' camaraderie. Sir Mark Elder (in charge this month and next) conducts with a keen ear for detail, conjuring a vivid orchestral response, a well-timed encompassing of the music's high spirits, tenderness and ultimate tragedy, allowing the melodies and emotions to ring out. Rodolfo's arty garret chums are well cast, but this was not the most moving or involving of first nights; deeper, less showy responses will sustain this much-played though evergreen opera.