Music: La bohème is sweet enough as it is, thanks

Consider this. It’s late on a December night in one of the world’s greatest early-Christian churches, the mosaic-encrusted Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Thick fog clings atmospherically to its 5th-century architecture. And the few of us inside are waiting for the choir to sing, expecting something Byzantine, austere and ancient to come wafting from the darkened galleries. But when it comes … it’s a John Rutter Christmas medley.

As it happens, I quite like John Rutter, but he wasn’t what I’d bargained for in these exotic circumstances. And the lesson here is that while purists scorn the easy-listening aspects of his music, Rutter is a global force and probably the most successful British “classical” composer of our time. He’s big in Italy. And personally I find that touching.

As for why I happened to be in Ravenna, it’s the home town of the conductor Riccardo Muti and the venue for the Ravenna Festival which his wife, Cristina, runs twice-yearly, each summer and winter. Rutter’s Christmas hits were actually no more than an aside to this year’s winter programme, which was based around Puccini’s La bohème in different guises over three nights.

There was a conventional production, staged by Mrs Muti in abstracted, sweepingly romantic terms with Mimi floating around the stage in not too many clothes, like a fashion model in a perfume ad (no wonder she’s succumbed to TB). But there was also a reworking of La bohème into a sort of Broadway musical, and an enormous stadium recital of Puccini arias from the superstar Anna Netrebko with Riccardo Muti at the piano.

The recital was surreal. As things turned out, Netrebko only sang three numbers, with two not-so-starry singers (one of them dressed like the bridegroom at a gypsy wedding) and a lot of hugging, kissing, speechifying and a video reminiscence of Luciano Pavarotti to fill out the time.

So far as I could tell, because it all came amplified at blistering volume, everything was well sung. And though Maestro Muti busked his way through the accompaniments, he did so with a weary wisdom that was interesting to watch. He rarely plays the piano publicly, and when he does it’s a collectable event.

As for Bohème: The Musical, it was impressively presented but I didn’t see the point. It used Puccini’s score, adapted into something like Lloyd Webber on an averagely bad day, adding nothing to the piece in either musical or narrative terms.

I suppose the writers thought that they were making opera more accessible.
But La bohème is perfectly accessible as things stand: it’s the shortest, easiest, most tuneful core work in the repertory. It isn’t medicine. It needs no sugar to go down.