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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème - opera in four acts (1896)
Rodolfo, Aquiles Machado (ten); Mimi, Inva Mula (sop); Marcello, Fabio Maria Capitanucci (bar); Musetta, Laura Giordano (sop); Schaunard, David Menendez (bar); Colline, Felipe Bou (bass); Alcindoro, Alfredo Mariotti (ten); Benoit, Juan Tomás Martinez (bass); Parpignol, Gonzalo Fernández de Terán
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid (Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus)/Jesus Lopez-Cobos
rec. live, Teatro Real, Madrid, March 2006
Stage director, Giancarlo del Monaco.
Set and Costume Designer, Michael Scott
Television Director, Robin Lough
Plus bonus of interviews and cast gallery
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic. Recorded in High Definition
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish
OPUS ARTE OA0961D [2 DVDs: 149:00]
 


As our Regional Editor of Seen and Heard records, (see article) the Welsh National Opera conceived of an interesting marketing strategy when they sent ticket purchasers for La Bohème a packet of paper handkerchiefs to arrive by post the following day. Well, the death of the young consumptive Mimi can be emotional, not merely because she dies so young, but just as Verdi did in La Traviata forty-three years before, Puccini invests the death scene with some of his most poignant melodies and motifs. I have seen both operas many times and the conclusion generally leaves me with a lump in my throat. I lost young friends to tuberculosis in Britain’s post-Second World War epidemic. The lucky ones spent several years in countryside sanatoria with lives, careers and education on hold. Tuberculosis is today considered a disease of poverty and overcrowded living conditions, just like the squalor that the accommodation the four young bohemian artists share in the novel by Henri Murger (1822-1861) so evocatively put to music by Puccini.
 
In this production by Giancarlo del Monaco the aim is a cinematographic representation. The sets, by Michael Scott with lighting by Wofgang von Zoubek, bring that ideal to stunning realisation. Although set in a period sixty or so years later than Murger’s original novel (Scènes de la Vie de Bohème), the 1890s scenes are fully realistic and the imaginative lighting enables quick and subtle changes of location as well as focusing, when appropriate, on the more intimate scenes.
 
The garret that the artists share is spacious and untidy as well as freezing cold. Puccini allows his two lovers to warm their voices before their big first act arias and duet through the student-type frolics and the conning of the landlord when he comes to collect the promised rent. All achieved without recourse to slapstick. Even Mimi gets some introductory phrases as she comes to the garret for a light for her candle. By then, only Rodolfo remains, his colleagues having left him to his creative struggle. The director lets us see that Mimi’s lost key has been found and that she knows that Rodolfo’s aims are to keep her talking; the scene is set for one of the most melodic closing scenes in all opera. Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo launches Che gelida manina (Disc 1 Ch. 6) with sensitivity and good open-throated tone. Having previously asked Mimi if she was feeling better after her little faint (Disc 1 Ch. 5) in a gentle sotto voce, he shows vocal and artistic sensitivity in his phrasing to which is added good legato. When he opens his throat at qui son it is forte without spread or wobble. He acts with sincerity but his small, over-rotund figure, is a serious disadvantage. Inva Mula’s Mimi is most appealing in demeanour and vocalisation. She too can sing softly and her quick vibrato is never obtrusive. In Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Disc 1 Ch. 7), she is pert, alert and with good body and facial language to complement excellent diction, legato, characterisation and phrasing. The concluding duet (Disc 1 Ch. 8) is lovely to with the direction and lighting focused on the couple as the scene changes quickly to act 2 at the square and the Café Momus.
 
In this production the act 2 entertainments have not been spared. There are diverse street entertainers including acrobats on a bar, jugglers, stilt walkers and a gypsy reading cards among the mélange as Parpignol arrives with his trinkets (Disc 1 Chs. 9-10). Inva Mula’s Mimi really looks lovelorn when Musetta arrives, complete with pet mini-poodle. Musetta ascends the bar to show off her legs and her waltz song (Disc 1 Ch. 10). Laura Giordano’s legs are shapely enough and although her vocal tone is a little thin, it is musical and no way acidic. By this stage the physically imposing Fabio Maria Capitanucci has shown some burnished baritone tone as Marcello. But it is in act three and four that his considerable vocal and acted contribution is best appreciated.
 
The setting of the frontier gate that is the focus of act three is very natural and atmospheric (Disc 2 Chs. 1-4). The opulently dressed but overexposed flesh of the whore outside the inn belies the winter scene as Mimi comes seeking Rodolfo. Marcello and Musetta quarrel convincingly whilst Mimi and Rodolfo say their farewells (Ch. 4). Whereas just previously in duet with Marcello, Machado had over-sung a little, he is at his sensitive best as, looking fraught, he sings and so you are leaving me my little one. Here fine mezza voce tone and elegance of phrase is in evidence whilst Inva Mula looks bereft. Musetta’s temperamental departure on an incongruous non-period bicycle is one of the few jarring moments in the production.
 
Act four (Disc 2 Chs. 5-11) is back in the bohemian’s garret. After a very finely and expressively sung duet between Rodolfo and the equally fulsomely-toned Marcello (Ch. 6) the gavotta (Ch. 7) is a bit over the top as the men make a mess of their room, including the wrecking of the bed to leave a mattress on the floor. The purpose of that is evident as the dying Mimi returns and is laid on it. Mid-shots focus on the group and then the Colline of Felipe Bou as he sings a slightly throaty farewell to his coat (Ch. 10) and departs with Schaunard, leaving the lovers alone. With Mimi on the mattress in close-up and the subtle lighting focused on her, Mula is superb as she sings of the bonnet that Rodolfo bought her. Her sotto voce as she reprises the Che gelida manina motif of act one on the breath, and again as she cradles her hands in the muff bought with Musetta’s earrings, is of the highest order. The soft lighting is fully focused on her as Mimi falls asleep and dies. Those poignantly awful moments of drama as Musetta prays and Rodolfo does not realise that Mimi has gone forever are well portrayed by director and camera. As Rodolfo does so and cries "Mimi …Mimi…" he turns and runs towards the rear of the stage that is suddenly lit with a backdrop of the empty streets of Paris. He runs towards them and the loneliness into which he is heading; a mini coupe de théâtre.
 
At the end of the scene of this last act, this old opera cynic, who has seen more La Bohèmes than enough over the last fifty years or so, needed to send for his own pack of handkerchiefs. This last scene in this production has a poignancy and immediacy of emotional impact that few opera performances rise to. Much is owed to Mula’s superb singing and acting as well as Lopez-Cobos’s pacing of the music. However we should not forget the production and lighting that directs the eye and mind to what is after all the final central drama of what is at heart an opera of disturbing sociological comment. I doubt that in the years since the first production at Teatro Regio, Turin, on 1 February 1896, many productions of La Bohème have achieved what Giancarlo del Monaco and his team do here. There are no producer concepts and even if the production cost a bomb, and I suspect it has, such efforts give the impact the composer intended when he gave its writing the blood and tears of his creativity. In this day and age too often composers are overlooked by bigger egos while cost does not always equate with quality of concept as it manifestly does here.
 
Recorded over three days the sound and picture detail are first rate. The booklet has an essay by Giancarlo del Monaco titled Puccini-composer and cinematographer, setting out his arguments for his approach which is among the best I have seen in this or any other opera for some years. The booklet is also innovative in giving the chapter listing via pictures from the production. This production, performance and the quality of recording far surpasses that by Pavarotti and the finely portrayed Mimi of Renata Scotto in the 1972 recording from the Met (see review) and quite a few other productions in a crowded market.
 
Robert J Farr

 

 

 



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