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Puccini, La Bohème: (Concert Performance) Soloists.  CBSO with Andris Nelsons (Conductor) CBS Chorus and CBS Youth Chorus, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 23.10.2008 (GR)

The hype on Andris Nelson is not exaggerated. He is every bit the vigorous, volcanic and inspirational conductor that early reports have intimated. I shouldn’t think there’s a wider baton arc in the business! With a future diary that includes engagements at Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera and Bayreuth, you would expect the freshly appointed Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to take a concert performance of Puccini’s La Bohème in his stride. At his new home he did.

I say concert performance, but the characters made the most of the first metre or so of the stage the orchestra had left them, realizing a considerable scale of interaction and movement. This was apparent early on as the four young male Bohemians in casual 21st century clothes, energetically put across the events of Puccini’s first scene; it’s amazing what you can do with a table and a few chairs, although Rodolfo’s manuscript was rather slim and the supper brought by Schaunard a bit meagre. Whoever was responsible for the lively stage direction, and however much or little rehearsal they had, did a great job. Their quartet was bubbly despite the absence of champagne, and their wits were sharp enough to see off landlord Benoit. Andris Nelsons marshalled both the orchestra in front of him and singers behind with credit-card flexibility of arms and neck.

Mimi’s theme from the orchestra Si mi chiamano Mimi announced her arrival, sickly pale but very interesting. Having grovelled around the floor for Mimi’s key, Pavel Cernoch as Rodolfo began his big aria Che gelida manina. This was disappointing, the magic of the moment failed to impress – possibly gone up in smoke with the poet’s manuscript. The lack of tone variation from Rodolfo was countered by a thrilling rendition of Mimi’s flagship aria. Whilst describing her skill as a seamstress, Nelsons weaved his own spell on the orchestra to accompany her. Kristine Opolais sang the role of Mimi, combining fragility with power, and tenderness with passion. She carried this emotion into the duet O soave fanciulla, no moonlight but romantic enough. The voices of the three departed Bohemians from the balcony provided a realistic offstage aside. I loved the little smile Mimi gave her partner on Curioso – Rodolfo was on a promise.

A change in lighting signalled the jollies of Act II. The CBS Youth Chorus faithfully conveyed the gaiety of the streets outside the Café Momus and allowed Nelsons to display a wider variety of sounds from his band. This is usually the most visually active scene of the opera, so for a concert performance it can consequently be the most frustrating. It was until Musetta entered to change the pace and launch into her waltz; Erin Wall (finalist in the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the World) was well cast as the extrovert and blowzy good-time girl. Wall sang out to the auditorium but her side-glances meant she was really addressing her remarks to ex-lover Marcello. Mario Cassi as the painter played his role, trying to appear nonchalant although he clearly still fancied her. After feigning injury with a really startling scream, Wall achieved the right level of melodrama. The events that surrounded the toy-maker Parpignol were absorbed into the general melée.

Act III may be even more difficult to do in concert form with city gates, inn exterior and wintry conditions. However with no overture, it gave Nelsons and the CBSO a chance to show their credentials. The opening two fortissimo chords riveted the audience back into their seats after the interval before the harp of Robert Johnston pronounced that it was snowing. In addition to all the beautiful arias in his operas, Puccini composed some highly effective between-scene music – the CBSO delivered. With such a ‘cold’ orchestral atmosphere, I fully expected Mimi to emerge wearing a shawl, but no she braved the conditions and her ailments valiantly and convincingly. Cassi was again impressive as the sympathetic Marcello but Rodolfo fooled nobody when he tried to portray Mimi as a flirt; perhaps he didn’t believe it himself. Mimi reached the heartstrings for her reflective Donde lieta, every syllable resounding throughout the Symphony Hall. A good balance was found between orchestra and singers in the subsequent quartet, the arguing of Musetta and Marcello pitched against the anguish of Mimi and Rodolfo. Just when the mood drifted into romantic overdrive to close the Act, Puccini brought the audience back to earth with a bump by the repetition of those two stark opening chords.

The remembrance duet of Rodolfo and Marcello in Act IV showed the strings of the CBSO to full advantage, dancing one minute wistful the next. Playing upon the frivolous antics of the Bohemians to lighten the mood, allowed Puccini’s music to increase the effect of the tragedy when it came. Colline said goodbye to his coat and prepared the ground for Mimi to take her farewell, albeit looking a little awkward on a couple of upright chairs. There was a reprise of all the familiar tunes but no case against Puccini for milking it could be made. Usually Rodolfo misses her last breath but here he was on the spot which I thought did remove some of the tragedy from the moment.

I presume Andris Nelsons had a major say in the casting department, engaging singers he knew from previous first hand experience in Latvia. As Kristine Opolais is his partner, she was an obvious choice for Mimi and as it turned out an excellent one. Hopefully we shall see her again in Birmingham. I look forward to it.

Geoff Read

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