Puccini: La bohème

Bavarian State Opera

National Theatre, Munich, 21 July 2012 5 star

La bohemePuccini’s La bohème might be classed as verismo, but it has little to do with the political aims of the original naturalist movement.  Rather than confronting its well-heeled audiences with the true horror of working class squalor, the poverty here provides an exotic backdrop for the adventures of four arty poseurs.  Recently, some directors (like Jonathan Miller at ENO) have attempted to subvert the opera by drawing this out in their staging.  The results have been confused and their success limited.  La bohème is best when presented on its own terms as a piece of unalloyed middlebrow kitsch.  The realism here is never going to be about guilt-tripping the bourgeoisie into treating the unfortunate better; instead it is about allowing the theatregoer to experience the self-indulgent pleasure of finding and being in love.  The strength of Otto Schenk’s traditionalist production (now in service at Bavaria for 43 years), and of this evening’s knockout performance of it, is that, without pretence to any higher aim, it delivers that narcotizing emotional hit as powerfully as possible.

Rudolf Heinrich’s sets and costumes – the most obvious legacy of the Schenk production – evoke perfectly the romanticised 1840s Paris of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème on which the opera is based.  Although the shabbiness of the historical Quartier Latin is evident, it is always suffused with an aura of enchantment.  We see not just the grotty garret in which the students enjoy starving, but it is cut away to reveal the surrounding rooftops, advertising hoardings and an indigo-blue sky.  In Act II, the Café Momus, where most of the action takes place, is dwarfed by the colours and the vibrancy of the people and the city that surround it.  And in the third act, near one of the entrances to the city, the sparkling snow and deep orange of the sunrise in the distance contribute a warm glow to what would be a bitterly cold scene.

With a staging that could have sprung straight out of the pages of the libretto, the spectator’s attention is inevitably focused on the performances.  This was one of those rare occasions where the highest quality went from the top to the bottom of the cast.  Even Alfred Kuhn, as the landlord who reveals his marital infidelities after the bohemians ply him with alcohol, managed to squawk comically without completely overdoing it.  The singing of the main six was so effortless that it became a transparency onto character.  From the stand-out charisma of Goran Jurić as the philosopher Colline, to the good-natured diffidence of Christian Rieger as poor Schaunard whose lot it is to be ignored by everyone.  Laura Tatulescu ensured that her feisty tart Musetta was not devoid of heart, and Levente Molnár that beneath his Marcello’s affable charm lay more than a hint of vulnerability.

The central pairing of Angela Gheorghiu as Mimì and Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo was one of two things that raised this above the merely good into the realm of the special.  I have never seen a more moving account of those two famous arias from the end of the first act (Rodolfo's Che gelida manina and Mimì's Sì, mi chiamano Mimì), nor of the heart-rending duet that follows (O soave fanciulla).  Both singers have that wonderful ability of being able to direct their voices over the orchestra without ever sounding like they are straining.  Gheorghiu also brought a speech-like expressivity to the quieter passages and Calleja that ringing ardour that one always longs to hear from a lyric tenor.  And if this opera is one of self-indulgence, the empathetic pleasure was helped along immeasurably by the sparks flying between the two.  In the third act, where they almost accidentally decide to wait until spring to split up (no one can be truly alone in the spring), it was as if they were two poles of a magnet ineluctably drawn together.  And near the end of the opera, when the dying Mimì interrupts the youthful tomfoolery of the quartet of friends, their caresses seemed achingly genuine.

The other thing that raised this performance into the ‘special’ category was the hidden dynamo beneath the stage.  Conductor Dan Ettinger’s Sex Pistols haircut might have looked a little out of place in the ultra-conservative surroundings of the Munich National Theatre, but the vibrancy he inoculated into this overworked piece prevented any hint of tiredness.  From the off, the music motored along and, despite the cracking pace, none of the detail of the intricate scoring was sacrificed.  He really came into his own in the most passionate sequences, never bothering with any of that dull tastefulness that can suffocate Puccini.  This is soppy, over-the-top, melodramatic stuff and that’s how we want to hear it played: swooping violins, cellos giving it all they’ve got in the top register and piercing horns forcing that painful lump at the back of the throat.  It was all there and much the better for it.

Let’s unfairly generalize and say that opera audiences are, in the main, an bunch of anti-intellectual establishment types.  For that reason, I’m all in favour baiting them with daring interpretations of the standard repertoire and forcing them to reappraise what they’re watching.  But for an unashamedly escapist romantic fantasy like La bohème, perhaps the only honest option is to dive right into the spirit of the piece and just go for it.  As this production shows, an immaculately crafted tear-jerker can be immensely satisfying when done well.

By Marc Brooks