La Bohème: Emotionally poignant and a musical and visual success

The World Première of the Royal Opera House Muscat and Opera de Monté-Carlo’s coproduction of Puccini’s “La Bohème” took place on Thursday evening to a rapturous reception from a packed auditorium. Originally performed in 1896 in Turin, this new interpretation was set in the winter of 1945 and was a double success – musically and visually. Set Designer, Rudi Sabounghi created backdrops and scenery which were simple without being minimalist. Act 1 opened straight into a superbly descriptive garret scene with period furniture, and a huge skylight window revealing a projection of chimney pots and attics outside.

The six soloists in this collaboration were all excellent singers without exception, and were accompanied by sixty eight members of Orchestre Philharmonique de Monté-Carlo. The forty chorus members of Opéra de Monté-Carlo were in Muscat for their second visit, under the celebrated Italian conductor, Giuseppe Finzi. Reinventing the action in post-war Paris provided some opportunities to achieve the realism that Puccini originally envisaged in the Latin Quarter, such as more contemporary costume and staging. The acting and drama in all four Acts was some of the best seen, with its verismo setting and expert staging by Monte-Carlo’s brilliant director, Jean-Louis Grinda.

The first Act plunged straight into the Bohemian world of painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo, engaged in youthful banter and complaints about their hunger and cold. The Italian libretto (translated in the subtitles) by Illica and Giacosa is wittily drole and very clever, punning on the dreams they are burning with almost 20th century humour. Spanish Baritone, Gabriel Bermúdez projected beautifully throughout as Marcello, with the apparently effortless, expansive voice of the highly acclaimed 42-year-old Italian tenor, Giorgio Berrugi as Rodolfo. Schaunard the musician, played by the young Milanese bass-baritone, Giovanni Romeo performed some beautiful passages with confident delivery, entering the scene bearing a basket of vitals from his earnings. The fourth roommate, Colline the Philosopher performed by the thirty-five-year old Georgian bass, George Andguladze completed the male quartet which commented amusingly throughout the opera in jest and slapstick.
The slender Russian soprano, Irina Lungu (Mimì) performed the role of a weak consumptive to perfection. Her dramatic collapse onto Rodolfo’s couch was surprising; she was nervous and shy, he was confident and soon the chemistry between them became palpable. ‘Che Gelida Manina’ (How cold is your little hand) was tenderly performed in the moonlight, and their falling in love was expressed beautifully in Berrugi’s unforced lyrical timbre. Standing up, Ms Lungu’s performance of, ‘Sì, Mi Chiamano Mimì’ was poignant and moving, sung front of stage with sparse orchestration to emphasise Mimi’s vulnerability. ‘Oh Soave Fanciulla’ duet confirmed their vocal compatibility, (Love’s ecstasies awaken in me a kiss), as they declared their love for each other. Puccini’s score is richly romantic with a sense of exoticism at times, suggested by lush chromatic harmony, harp glissandos and evocative bass clarinet themes. The scenery moved: the projection up and the gauze came down to reveal the whole café scene for Act 2. It was a spine-tingling moment as the couple moved to the back and sang, ‘tell me you love me’ facing the street.
Act 2, Café Momus, was a busy, riot of colour. The toy-seller Parpignol, sung hilariously by Vincenzo di Nocera, wheeled his illuminated barrow across front of stage, followed by twenty child-extras dressed in snow-white festive costumes. One of the highlights of the show came in the shape of 26-year-old Ethiopian-born Italian soprano, Mariam Battistelli on her second visit to ROHM, as the flirtatious Musetta, Marcello’s former lover. She was seductive as she danced on tables with two waiters in Musetta’s Waltz, ‘Quando Men Vo’, while singing the most stunning, poised phrases in her impossibly high tessitura. The end of the Act was directed as a tableau, with children and chorus front of stage as if watching the parade go by.
Act 3 at the Toll Gate began with snowfall on gauze and continued in an intense, dark mood. It was an atmospheric scene pervaded by Mimi’s theme, a spine-tingling Quartet with Musetta and Marcello, ‘Dunque è Proprio Finita!’ and concluding with the chilling Addio duet, so high in Mimi’s range.
The Entr’acte before the final scene had projections on gauze in the style of crackly old newsreels. A tree-lined avenue changed from snowy winter in January to blossoms in spring and finally lush leaves by June. Back in the garret Rodolfo and Marcello were chatting with the appearance of normalcy but actually missing Mimi and Musetta. The tenor-baritone duet between them was touchingly moving. But as Schaunard arrived back with a herring for dinner the scene descended into slapstick, dancing a quadrille and play-acting a boxing duel! It provided light relief in contrast to the looming tragedy. Musetta burst in and explained Mimi’s situation. She was dying and Puccini cleverly sent the others off to sell their belongings to allow Rodolfo some moments alone with Mimi. Before he departs Colline sings a stirring aria to his old coat, ‘Vecchia Zimarra’, which will be pawned to help Mimì, performed with stillness and pathos by George Andguladze.
Ms Lungu’s performance as a dying consumptive, singing in a breathless sotto voce, was superb. They reminisced about when they first met, ‘Sono andati?’, the candles, key and Mimi’s cold hands, which were now warmed by the muff Musetta had brought her, tragically, too late. The music from Act 1 returned to complete Puccini’s cyclic form in one of the finest operatic endings imaginable. Birds ascended at the Brass’ death knell and Rodolfo demanded, ‘Why are you all looking at me?‘ and then realised, Mimì is dead. It was emotionally poignant without sentimentality, and the frozen stillness spoke volumes. There was barely a dry eye as the curtain fell, and the applause continued for many minutes, with a standing ovation.