Four years ago, in 2012, the Liceu presented a production of Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème," directed by Giancarlo del Monaco, that became a benchmark of excellence for me. At the end, I came out overwhelmed with emotion and acutely aware of the story's relevance in the current world.
As a result, when this season's presentation of Jonathan Miller's version of the opera was announced, I wondered how it would stand up to the earlier competition.
The answer is that it was good; a worthy effort that by no means did any injustice to one of the most beautiful examples of verismo opera. But, for me, the 2012 del Monaco version will still remain the standard of excellence and, indeed, emotional excitement.
I have, on occasion, been asked by non-opera-goers why I would want to see the same story over and over again. After all, they pointed out, I don't reread books at regular intervals. True enough, if you exclude Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen!
But the real answer is that, in the case of performance art, it is precisely the performance that makes each version new and different.
This 2016 presentation, a joint production of the English National Opera (ENO) and the Cincinnati Opera, offers a greyer, more melancholy and muted rendering of the hopeless love story of Rodolfo, an impoverished young Parisian artist and the seamstress Mimi, his dying neighbour.
Miller has transposed the action to the early years of the 20th century, which made little difference and was probably unnecessary, but, given the economic circumstances of the time, worked more or less well.
The sets were convincing and entirely adequate, but not special. Rodolfo's attic home was not dissimilar to the 2016 version, but was less well placed, at least for the platea (stalls), though the view from the upper floors might, exceptionally, have offered a better view. The Cafe Momus where the friends gathered in Scene 2, was small and realistic but lacked personality. And the area open to the chorus and crowd activity was far too small to permit the robust carousing that, in the earlier production, was such a dramatic contrast to the previous intimate scene. The best staging was the drear, frigid outdoor space of the second act, where Rodolfo tries vainly to save himself from a relationship that he knows will end in tragedy.
The singing and acting were generally superb, especially Matthew Polenzani as Rodolfo, whose combined tenderness of action and voice reduced me to tears several times, and also both Mimi (Tatiana Monogarova) and Musetta (Nathalie Manfrino). All three sang with wrenching emotion. And the two major solos, Rodolfo’s “gelida manina” and Mimi’s “mi chiamano Mimi” were exquisitely sung: definitely three-handkerchief renditions.
One thing that was notably missing from the current version was the sparky liveliness and camaraderie of the four impoverished young artists. Rodolfo and Marcello (Arturo Ruciński) stood out as personalities, but as a foursome, the two more minor characters were not permitted to make much impact. The desperate fun-seeking and binding affection that helped to keep the pain of poverty and hunger at bay were not nearly as convincingly portrayed as they had been in the earlier version.
Withal, it was impossible not to be enthralled and moved, swept along by the beauty of Puccini's music and the believability of the libretto, based on Henri Murger's "Scènes de la vie de Bohème." Not for nothing is this one of the most frequently performed operas around the world.
The conductor, Marc Piollet, while a little bit distractingly bouncy at times, led the Liceu orchestra in a beautiful performance.
LA BOHEME 2016, ADDENDUM
On Saturday, July 2nd, I saw ”La Boheme” for the second time, curious to compare the first and second cast. To my delight, I found that there were only shades of difference and that audiences for both casts were treated to a first-class evening of music and drama.
It was almost a toss-up: the main characters, Mimi, sung by Eleonora Buratto, Musetta (Olga Kulchynska) and Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu) were all rich-voiced, sensitive actors. Pirgu’s Rodolfo was a shade less moving than that of Matthew Polenzani, largely because Polenzani’s acting was more delicate and convincing. I was marginally less happy with Marcello (Gabriel Bermúdez), whose voice and acting were slightly less polished. However, one area of improvement was the bonding of the four young artists: in the second cast, the two lesser characters, Colline (Fernando Radó) and Schaunard (Isaac Galàn) had more presence, which painted a more vivid picture of the desperate clowning and loyalty that bonded the group. But all in all, both first and second casts were first-rate.
One interesting little fact: at times, in this particular production, it made a real difference where you sat. For the first cast I was in the orchestra; for the second I was up in the first circle. At at least one point, the view of the stage in this production by Jonathan Miller was startlingly different the second time around. This is necessarily true when you have multiple tiers and a traditional horseshoe–shaped auditorium, and only on rare occasions is it a serious problem. (I think back bitterly to long-ago Lincoln Center Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which is almost entirely a two- or three-people opera. I had forked out $8 – a large percentage of my pitiful salary – to go to it. My cheap seat apparently entitled me to a view of half of the stage, and the unthinking director had placed all the action on the side I couldn’t see. I could have bought the record and stayed at home.)
In the current Miller production, the different views were really not of importance, simply noticed. In the first scene of the second act, for example, the action takes place outside the little café where Marcello is painting murals. The café is on the right of the stage, there is another anonymous building on the left, and between them is a short, narrow street. What I discovered during my second viewing, with a seat from which I could see all the way down the street, was that considerable stage activity took place there. It was not important to the story or the music, but it was interesting, atmospheric busy work that enlivened the production. And in my first visit, I was totally unaware of it.
The most satisfying discovery, however, was that whether one went to the first- or the second-cast performance, it was well worth the effort.
See here for information about dates and tickets