December 8, 2013
A surefire hit under almost any circumstances
For the Herald
La Bohème is one of three operas holding the record of performances
In the sweepstakes for first place in recent years, three operas hold the record of performances: Verdi’s La Traviata, Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s La Bohème. Curiously enough, in all three the female protagonist dies, and in two — the first and the third — she dies of tuberculosis. And in the same two, either the whole (La Bohème) or most of the action occurs in Paris. Furthermore, they are situated in the 1840s.
Years ago, I read a French edition of the novel that was the basis for Puccini’s opera: the charming Scènes de la Vie de Bohème written as a novel in 1848 (it also appeared as a feuilleton and a play, much as happened with Alexandre Dumas-fils’ La Dame aux camélias, basis for Verdi’s opera).
This was a time of femmes légères and of free sexual relations with attractive but penniless artists. So they often alternated pleasure (or real love) with protection by aristocrats. The big difference between Mimi (Puccini) and Violetta (Verdi) is that the former falls in love with a writer and the latter with a young man from the high bourgeoisie of southern France, but both philander with nobles when money runs out.
True, Dumas-fils was more of a littérateur than the self-made and originally almost illiterate Murger, so his opus is more finished than the rather chaotic one by Murger, but in both cases there are autobiographical traits. And in both operas the librettists embellish the much harsher facts of the novel.
Puccini came from Manon Lescaut’s success (an opera with great similarities) when he tackled La Bohème with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Their libretto is full of witty phrases illustrated by the composer with unfailing appositeness. However, they have great failures which most reviewers don’t mention when they should. E.g., the matter of winter cold. The entire first act harps on it (the fire consumes Rodolfo’s drama) but when Mimi wants to accompany her instant lover to the Café Momus, Rodolfo tells her as in a famous jazz item “but baby, it’s cold outside;” although that could be a ploy to go to bed with her.
But the Café Momus turns out to be a mostly open-air affair in which a vast crowd seems to be as comfortable as in summer. Again the cold dominates in the third and fourth acts, hardly more consistently (Rodolfo, a coward, wants to leave Mimi because she is very cold in his room, but she insists on staying outside in their meeting).
As time goes by, the tomfoolery of the Bohemians becomes increasingly irritating for me, since they act as teenagers instead of fully-grown people. And it’s very hard to find artists that are young and agile enough to make the “fight” and dance into something acceptable.
However, Puccini’s wonderful music puts it all right: lovely melodies, endless imagination, refined orchestration carry the opera forward, even in its kitschiest (the French say chichi) moments. People don’t analyze, they just enjoy the beauty.
Thirty years ago, when I mentioned the productions, I made distinctions of quality, but the issue wasn’t whether they were given the proper ambience according to the time in which they occur. Now, as a symbol of what is going very wrong in the world of opera, I praise the very fact of respect to time and place. As I write, I tremble to think what La Fura dels Baus could make of La Bohème.
So kudos for Ana D’Anna (Juventus Lyrica, Avenida) as she gives us a reasonably good account of what the librettists wrote. And her human warmth (sometimes overdone) is what the piece needs. The fun of the children in the Café Momus scene was contagious. Her daughter María Jaunarena contributes the beautiful and varied costumes of those times. The work of Gonzalo Córdova is much weaker: his sets are not absurd but they leave a lot to be desired, and his lighting was certainly very poor in the first act, where there was too much light in the famous moment in which Mimi drops the key and Rodolfo finds it.
When one says that the best thing was the conducting and the playing of the orchestra something is seriously amiss. The veteran maestro Antonio Russo (born 1934) keeps very well, strong and dynamic; his sensitive phrasing and very good contact with the singers and the choir (which he prepared) are those of a specialist. By the way, a good version with reduced orchestra was played (by Mario Parenti). The children’s choir came from various parts of Buenos Aires, within a social project called Musizap (Asociación de Amigos de Orquestas Infantiles y Juveniles).
I don’t know what will happen with the second cast, but in the first Rodolfo was way below expectations. Although Mariano Spagnolo’s voice is stentoreous, he is musically bad, with poor intonation and a distempered timbre; as an actor, his bulk doesn’t help. Sabrina Cirera, although a better musician, has too much vibrato and her timbre isn’t enticing. And Laura Polverini’s Musetta was too strident, even if she was in character.
So the best contributions came from the other Bohemians: Fernando Grassi sang a true, fresh Marcello and moved well; Mario De Salvo was a good Colline, and Juan Font, a funny Schaunard. Gabriel Carasso (Alcindoro and Benoit) almost has no voice, so he resorted to effects; and Fernando Navarro was a rough Parpignol.