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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL OPERA REVIEW
 

Puccini, La bohème : at Värmlandsoperan, Karlstad, Sweden, 18.9.2008 (GF)

 

Directed by Peter Konwitschny

Sets and costumes by Johannes Leiacker

Lighting design by Steffen Böttcher

 

Cast:

 

Mimi – AnnLouice Lögdlund

Musetta – Anna-Maria Krawe

Rodolfo – Jonas Durán

Marcello – Anton Eriksson

Schaunard – John Sax

Colline – Johan Schinkler

Parpignol – Christer Nerfont

Benoit – Henrik Hugo

Alcindoro – Peter Boman

 

Värmlandsoperan’s Sinfonietta and Chorus, Young Värmlandsoperan’s Chorus, extras, stage musicians and dancers. Conducted by Per-Otto Johansson



Since 1975 the province of Värmland in Western Sweden, bordering on Norway, has had its own opera company in the City of Karlstad on the north side of Lake Vänern, the third largest lake in Europe. The opera house, beautifully situated a stone’s throw from River Klarälven, was built in 1893 and the architect, Axel Anderberg, also designed a number of other theatres, including Oscarsteatern and the Stockholm Opera. It is a beautiful but small venue, seating at the most 397 onlookers. Originally intended for spoken theatre and between 1917 and 1975 used for cinema, the acoustics are on the dry side but the intimate size implies that the audience come very close to the action. Sitting in the last row but one in the stalls I was still closer than when seated in the front row in many large houses.

This production of La bohème was premiered on 5th August and will be played until the end of November. It was originally staged at Oper Leipzig in Germany but I suspect that Peter Konwitschny and his team had to adapt it quite drastically to squeeze it into this venue. They employ not only the stage but also boxes close to the stage and a kind of catwalk surrounding the orchestral pit, which further contributes to the close contact between actors and audience. Costumes are rather timeless and in no way spectacular, apart from Musetta’s extravagant and rather alluring outfit. In the second act, at Café Momus on Christmas Eve, Johannes Leiacker literally wallows in extravaganza with a throng of dressed up characters, including a couple of walking Christmas trees, a full-size Christmas present, also walking, wrapped in white  and with a red string, and clever use of the revolving stage to further heighten the impression of crowd. The other three acts are however very sparse. In the first there is the stove, where they burn Rodolfo’s play, and Marcello’s easel with his very wide painting, later used as table for the starving Bohemians. In the background we see a panorama of illuminated Paris. In Act III Marcello’s painting is leaning against the wall to the left, marking that the tavern is even further to the left. There is heavy snowfall, which continues in the last act, taking place not in the attic from act one but in the street. In Konwitschny’s reading the Bohemians have obviously gone to the dogs, a social decadence comparable to The Stockholm Opera’s cynical and hard-boiled recent La traviata. In this setting Colline’s grandiose Il Re mi chiama al minister (The King wants me as minister) so obviously reveals the gap between dream and reality. We need dreams of course, sometimes the only thing that gives some gilt edge to one’s existence and it is possible to interpret Konwitschny’s reading as in some sense Darwinist: the survival of the fittest. Anyway,  we come closer to these characters’ true selves than in any staging of this opera I can remember. There were so many finely observed details of psychologically credible behaviour, from Mimi’s cute shame in the first act when Rodolfo tells his friends, Non son solo. Siamo in due (I’m not lonely. We are two) to the Act III scene between the two, where Mimi has overheard the dialogue between Rodolfo and Marcello and learnt that she is already doomed. But so caring in the midst of her desperation is she that she takes up Rodolfo’s jacket from the ground and puts it over his shoulders. It is of course a tragedy and I believe that few eyes were dry when the last notes had died away. Unusually the curtain remained open and the characters remained in frozen positions for a very long time – and there was not a trace of applause until Mimi eventually started to move and the whole ensemble got to the front of the stage. Life goes on. Business as usual.



Mimi – AnnLouice Lögdlund

As in practically every Puccini opera there are of course also comical elements and Konwitschny also brings these to the fore and doesn’t hesitate to include some burlesque scenes – even some risqué ones. Musetta’s and Marcello’s unblushing copulation on the front catwalk in Act II was certainly not to everyone’s liking but it added something to the picture of their animal attraction to each other. Completely avoiding sentimentality in a production of La bohème is probably impracticable – Puccini has built it into the music – but Peter Konwitschny has managed to tighten things up and I suppose that he has had some views on the musical interpretation as well. The conductor of the evening, Per-Otto Johansson, chose generally brisk tempos and there was a rhythmic lilt in several places that felt totally refreshing. Konwitschny even mentions Toscanini’s recording of the opera from 1946 which proves that ‘this music/…/ isn’t foredoomed to survive as emotional mishmash.’ With an orchestra of 34 players and acoustics reminiscent of the notorious dryness of NBC’s Studio 8H there was more than a fleeting likeness with the Italian maestro who, by the way, conducted the world premiere back in 1896. The 28 strong chorus was also more than satisfactory and the children’s chorus in Act II was well drilled and charming.

Among the soloists AnnLouice Lögdlund stood out as the star of the evening, less through volume and brilliance but through restraint and nuances. She was excellent from her first entrance but grew during the performance, charging Donde lieta usci in Act III with emotion and she was deeply touching in the final scene of the opera. Jonas Durán as Rodolfo and Anton Eriksson as Marcello are both in the beginning of their professional careers and with some more experience they will surely be important members of any ensemble. They took some time to warm up but in the third act they impressed greatly. Anna-Maria Krawe was a charismatic Musetta – the bitchiest I’ve seen – and Johan Schinkler as Colline sported a monumental bass voice that should be an asset also in Wagnerian roles. His philosopher was rather hot-tempered and not the stoic we normally expect. John Sax, whom I once saw as a fine Eugene Onegin, was an expressive Schaunard and like all his colleagues he was a vivid actor.

The performance was sung in Italian with Swedish surtitles and with only one intermission – between Acts II and II– and no breaks between the other acts,  the sense of unity and inexorable forward movement became extra strong. This is indeed a La bohème to treasure.

Göran Forsling

Photos © Johan Eklund

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