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© Antoni Bofill
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© Antoni Bofill
Last night’s opening of Giacomo Puccini’s beautifully acted and staged La Bohème was book-ended by incidents that pulled the story right off the stage and into the real life of today.
When the audience arrived at the portico of the Liceu, we were greeted by workers handing out leaflets reminding us of the sacrifices that have been demanded of them in order for the season to continue uncut. It set the stage for the industrial and social struggle that lurks behind the story of Scenes de la vie de Bohème, the tales by Henri Murger that were the basis of Puccini’s libretto.
The four-act opera, one of the most frequently performed operas in the world, is a triumph of realism and was eloquently staged as such in this production, which originated at the Teatro Real of Madrid. It was a pleasure to see the story set with logic and accurate detail in the appropriate period and place. No Don Giovanni on a cruise liner this, with everyone flitting around in bikinis and swimming trunks (a recent experience in Riga, Latvia).
The acting and staging were outstanding: stage director Giancarlo del Monaco deserves high praise. The second act, a crowded scene outside the Café Momus, will remain as an excellence marker for me from now on. The stage swarmed with action, each individual adding reality to the carnival atmosphere as the crowds swirled around the hawkers with their wares. Stilt-walkers strode high among them and a tightrope performer tiptoed and swung above their heads with great skill and confidence. So much was going on at once, but so well was it arranged that it was in no way overwhelming. The third act was a brilliant contrast. The desolation of the cold winter street, the damp, snow-chilled air and the despair of the streetwalkers and drunks, for whom there was little comfort in the recently industrialised world seemed absolutely real.
The singing was uniformly good, but the four male friends were beyond reproach. Ramon Vargas as Rodolfo sang with warmth, drama and emotion; Christopher Maltman was an excellent, uncomplicated Marcello and, with lesser but no less important roles, Carlo Colombara and Gabriel Bermudez completed the well-matched foursome. They convincingly managed to extract life and fun from their miserable, freezing, starved circumstances and provide one another with very necessary moral support. Each singer came to the fore with great credibility in the final scene, each coping with Mimi’s impending death in his own way.
Both Fiorenza Cedolins as Mimi and Ainhoa Arteta as Musetta were persuasive actresses. Both have dramatically robust voices, but both were a touch harsh. It is true that the music, to an extent, demands forceful singing (at times it almost feels like a competition between orchestra and vocalists). But there was not enough modulation in either voice. Mimi remained as loud and forceful at the end as she was at the beginning, instead of using her voice to delineate her increasing weakness. Musetta was appropriately raucous in the Café Momus scene where she clambered onto the bar and flirted with the world in order to awaken Marcello’s possessiveness. She did, however, soften her voice in the final act, as she helplessly watches her friend die.
The last scene is deeply moving and I was certainly on the edge of tears as the curtain came down. And then we walked back into the real world of today, and there, across the road from the opera house, on the Ramblas and on Calle Ferran, were the young unfortunates of our own era. At least Rodolfo and his friends had a roof over their heads, and were able to extract some fun from a more flexible world. But hunched up on the pavement at the base of the buildings, with their big companion dogs splayed out beside them, were today’s poor, jobless, futureless and homeless young men. That was when I started to cry.
La Boheme continues in performance until March 19th, with four cast changes. If you wish to hear a particular performer, check the dates carefully.