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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème - Opera in Four Acts - (1894-95)
Rodolpho – Rolando Villazon (tenor)
Mimi – Alexia Voulgaridou (soprano)
Marcello – Ludovic Tézier (baritone)
Musetta – Elena de la Merced (soprano)
Colline – Markus Marquardt (bass-baritone)
Schaunard – Toby Stafford-Allen (baritone)
Benoit – Andrew Greenan (bass)
Parpignol – Berkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Bregenz Festival Dance Ensemble
Bregenz Festival Chorus/Moscow Chamber Choir/Children’s Chorus of Bregenz Music School
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
Production directors and stage design: Richard Jones and Anthony McDonald
rec. Bregenz Festival, 2002.
DVD Region 0. Format 9. Picture format 16:9. Dolby Stereo 2.0. Subtitles in German, English, French, Italian.
CAPRICCIO 93 515 [100:00]

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You have to hand it to the Austrian city of Bregenz: when it comes to staging opera they don’t do things by halves. How many other places would even dare to mount an annual international festival with artists and a conductor of international reputation accompanied by Vienna’s second orchestra – all staged on a purpose-built platform in the middle of Lake Constance, or the Bodensee as the locals call it? It seems a little mad, doesn’t it? But it’s a formula that certainly works.

The fact they do it at all has forced them to be inventive about how they approach the business of staging an opera. Economic considerations mean that the massive set has to last for two seasons and the time in between open to the elements sitting in water, baking under the summer sun or freezing in the snow and ice of winter. An orchestra has to be accommodated somewhere – usually within the floating stage, as the lake’s shore is used to seat the audience. Every detail has to be microphoned and relayed so it can be heard. (See further reading links below for more information on these issues).

So, to the 2002 staging of La Bohème. Rolando Villazon, now a household name of the opera world, was back then relatively unknown. Alexia Voulgaridou, whose previous appearances on CD I have welcomed here, along with Elena de la Merced and the other cast members present an essentially young – and, therefore, appropriate – incarnation of the work’s main characters. This is no bunch of great stars playing make-believe with their long forgotten youth.

I can understand why this production has been issued on DVD: Rolando Villazon’s presence should be enough to sell a fair few copies. None of his fans at likely to be at all disappointed. He makes a visually believable bohemian poet, which doesn’t hurt matters. I admired his consistently strong tone; even at piano dynamics it is clear. His phrasing is beautifully aware of Puccini’s idiom – and even though he does sometimes hold a top note, as star tenors are wont to do, he does not distort the overall shape of the music too much. I am reminded of seeing him in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in London a couple of years ago, when I could only describe his acting as manic. It’s much the same for the Bregenz production: he flings himself around the stage with abandon. That he manages to sing as well tells you something about his level of physical fitness.

You should not think that this is just a one-person production where the cast is concerned. The other bohemians all give creditable portrayals of their parts, with several fine singers amongst their number. Markus Marquardt’s Colline is particularly touching in Act 4 when offering to pawn his coat so a doctor can treat Mimi. Alexia Voulgaridou turns in a very affecting performance as Mimi, beautifully sung, with a willingness to maintain the intimate atmosphere when it is called for the most: her reading of Si, mi chiamano Mimi is but one example of this. She partners Villazon well and they look good together. Elena de la Merced sings the part of Musetta with some feeling, though much else about how her character is portrayed is somewhat controversial. Singing Quando me’n vo Marilyn Monroe style into a 1950s standard microphone is certainly individual, but it fits into this particular production.

The conception that Richard Jones and Anthony McDonald bring to the staging of the opera will not be to everyone’s taste. The stage is a couple of outsized Parisian café tables and chairs that have been sunk into the bed of the Bodensee. On one table is a notional map of Paris and an outsized yellow ashtray, which being cunningly disguised acts as a stage entrance. The scale of the stage somewhat dwarfs the singers, dancers and chorus. Brian Large’s expert filming manages however to give some focus to the main events on stage without letting the other abstract ‘busy-ness’ that carries on alongside it interfere too much.

The use of microphones might also be an issue for some. In fact, it’s a blessing and a curse. Whilst it was necessary so the live audience could hear the music, it’s use as the sound source on the DVD means that you’ll have to get used to something very different from most other opera DVDs. The orchestra, which you never see, is very forwardly placed as a result of close microphoning and amplification. Or at least it sounds that way to me. You don’t get much sense of space around the orchestra or one instrumental body interplaying with another. Rather, it is everything spread across your left and right audio channels. This irritated me to begin with, much as the high-jinx elements of the stage action did, but after a while Puccini established himself as more demanding on my attention than such subsidiary elements.

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra play and the various choral forces perform under Ulf Schirmer’s generally sensitive direction with conviction. Brief but useful notes give some information on the production together with a plot synopsis. This is a highly enjoyable DVD of a quirky stage production that I will revisit for the contributions of the major cast members above all else.

Evan Dickerson

Further reading:

Article and interview about the stage design for this production:
Sound design, acoustics and microphones used at the Bregenz Festival:


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