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Jonas Kaufmann [Photo by Suzanne Schwiertz courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich]
21 Jun 2011

Swiss Odyssey

A funny thing happened on the way to Anna Bolena

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff

La Bohème — Mimi: Inva Mula; Musetta: Eva Mei; Rodolfo: Jonas Kaufmann; Marcello: Massimo Cavalletti; Schaunard: Cheyne Davidson; Colline: Carlo Colombara; Benoit: Davide Fersini; Alcindoro: Giuseppe Scorsin; Parpignol: Carl Hieger. Conductor: Massimo Zanetti. Director: Philippe Sireuil. Revival Director: Ulrich Senn. Set Design: Vincent Lemaire. Costume Design: Jorge Jara. Lighting Design: Hans-Rudolf Kunz. Chorus Master: Ernst Raffelsberger.

Falstaff — Sir John Falstaff: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Mrs. Alice Ford: Eva Mei; Ford: Massimo Cavalletti; Nannetta: Eva Liebau; Mrs. Quickly: Yvonne Naef; Mrs. Meg Page: Judith Schmid; Fenton: Javier Camarena; Dr. Cajus: Peter Straka; Bardolfo: Martin Zysset; Pistola: Davide Fersini; Page: Domeni Gloor. Conductor: Daniele Gatti. Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf. Set Design: Rolf Glittenberg. Costume Design: Marianne Glittenberg. Lighting Design: Juergen Hoffmann. Chorus Master: Ernst Raffelsberger.

Above: Jonas Kaufmann

All photos by Suzanne Schwiertz courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich


Zurich Opera, finding itself without its star mezzo (Elīna Garanča fell ill) and finding no viable substitute, re-purposed much of the Donizetti cast, rang up diva Inva Mula and superstar Jonas Kaufmann, and had themselves a gala-quality La Bohème (or, Anna Bohema, if you will) instead.

Having recently “done” the Puccini opus in Catania, and having already experienced this same Swiss production on DVD, I must say my enthusiasm was dampened as I entered the theatre. Routine Puccini seemed to loom in place of rare Donizetti. Still, I mused, I could see how well the production fared “live” and probably enjoy the starry line up.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when, from the downbeat, I was mesmerized.

Vincent Lemaire’s spare set design works wondrously well. A basic raised platform spanning the width of he stage is flanked by multi-purpose walls left (with household cabinet inset that swaps out with other scenic elements) and right (the obligatory door to the garret that doubles as Act Three’s Inn entrance). A claustrophobic skylight presses down on the opening scene, and a back wall is topped by cutouts of Parisian rooftops poking up over the ceiling. An omnipresent stove with smokestack craning jauntily upward remains down center left throughout, and the few requisite pieces of furniture complete the shabby lodgings. In a brilliant visual coup, as Act Two’s first chord sounds in a breathless segue from Mimi and Rodolfo’s Act One exit, the upstage wall falls backward in a glance and opens the apartment playing space to encompass the full stage, a “street” which immediately fills with revelers as the skylight flies up and away. Act Three simply re-dresses the platform once again with a simple addition of a bench, a “buffet” sign at the inn and a customs office window where the garret’s cabinet had been. All of this was atmospherically lit by Hans-Rudolf Kunz (with one caveat below), and ingeniously costumed in riffs on 60’s Free-Love garb by Jorge Jara.

Jonas Kaufmann achieved world star status while coming of age in a variety of roles in this house, and he continues to have a special relationship with the Zurich Publikum. Were any proof needed for his world-wide acclaim, Mr. Kaufmann provided it in abundance. First, he has an actor’s instincts for subtle character development and encompasses a richly diverse Rodolfo in physical action as well as vocalization. Yes, he covers the voice on occasion, most usually on introspective phrases, but the trick pays off in deeply felt effects. On this occasion the role’s high-flying, soaring phrases rang out with thrilling, gleaming, full-throated tone every bit as Italianate as my recent encounter with Giordani’s interpretation. He did misjudge the very end of the Act One duet, starting out taking the lower harmony with Mimi, and then flipping up to the unison/octave high note in voix mixe. Not bad, secure enough, just …odd. Still, this was a consummate performance from one of the world’s leading singers, and the shouts of approval and cadenced clapping greeting Jonas at curtain call threatened to bring the plaster down off the ceiling.

Nor was he alone in his triumph. Inva Mula is an ideal Mimi, petite and youthful in demeanor, yet with a soprano mature enough to handle every spinto demand of the role’s heavier going. Her “Mi chiamano Mimi” was both a model of clarity for its character exposition, and a Masters Class in how to build and shape an aria. The substantial pregnant pause before she began “ma quando vien lo sgelo” had us on the edge of our seats in anticipation as Ms. Mula drew us into most willingly into Mimi’s world with what seemed liked a giant “exhale’ of a phrase. Her full-bodied lyric has just a bit of an edge giving the voice a vibrant presence in all registers and volumes. A treasureable performance.

DSC_0064.gifMassimo Cavalletti

Massimo Cavalletti contributed a memorable Marcello, not only for the straight forward deployment of his rich and robust baritone, but also for his winning stage demeanor and personal investment in the emotional ‘money’ moments. Carlo Colombara proved to be another audience favorite for his soundly sung, unusually specific Colline, whose ‘Coat Aria’ was characterful and moving. Cheyne Davidson was the high-caliber Schaunard, rounding out the quartet with his solid singing easy stage deportment.

Eva Mei, who was to have sung the title part in Anna Bolena, did not face near the same challenges as Musetta, but the glamorous and gifted Ms. Mei threw herself into the proceedings with relish, and regaled us with some delightful sights and sounds. Making the most of every opportunity, she negotiated her creamy soprano through a wholly engaging “Quando m’en vo,” dominating Act Two as she must. Proving a wonderful collaborator, in later acts Eva ceded the focus to her colleagues all the while remaining dramatically engaged in a well-rounded, ‘human’ interpretation. Davide Fersini was an unusually youthful, opportunistic, and well sung Benoit; Giuseppe Scorsin provided the ‘glue’ needed to hold together Act Two as Alcindoro; and Carl Hieger was the secure Parpignol. Ernst Raffelsberger’s chorus sang cleanly and enthusiastically.

Ulrich Senn has re-mounted Philippe Sireuil’s direction with marvelous results. I have seldom seen characterizations and inter-relationships so richly detailed, so grounded in truth, so well-motivated, and so excitingly blocked. The by-play between Marcello and Rodolfo, for example established a loving, almost co-dependent relationship that was reinforced right up until the last moment, when Marcello tightly hugs and physically restrains Rodolfo from going to Mimi’s corpse. What a powerful moment! I never thought I could be moved to tears at the end of this chestnut, but there I was blubbering like Cher after her Met visit in “Moonstruck.” Mimi’s final moments were similarly well crafted, with her lying on her side, suggesting a fetal position. When her hand fell out of the muff she looked for all the world like a wounded bird who had fallen from a tree. There were so many creative touches that were so right, so fresh, so telling, that it would be impossible to discuss them all here. This kind of inspired specificity is what fine direction is about.

A very small quibble, though, which I hope future revivals might correct: the solo character placement in Act II needed focus, perhaps only so much as better lighting specials. Puccini paints a busy canvas in the Momus scene and the principals occasionally got lost in the bustle. But, even with that small consideration, this was a stunning achievement.

DSC_0088.gifJavier Camarena and Massimo Cavaletti

Maestro Massimo Zanetti paced the proceedings with infectious drive, infusing the performance with a freshness and spontaneity I did not think possible with this thrice-familiar opera. He also proved an amiable partner for his exceptional soloists, seeming to live the scenes with them, enabling moments of exceptional impact. The first rate pit responded with luminous playing throughout.

Would that conductor Daniele Gatti have been infected by such inspiration , for the next night’s Falstaff was not helped by his atypically detached musical leadership. Some of the great moments of Verdi’s final work scored their full effect, to be sure, but others, like the male and female quartets dueling in different meters hung together, but were not seamless. Ditto the “pizzica-stuzzica” ensemble which lacked the cleanliness it needs to sparkle. I have long admired Maestro Gatti, but this night he too often seemed distracted.

There was a lot to admire in the accomplished cast, however, not least of which were the Nanetta and Fenton of Eva Liebau and Javier Camarena. Ms. Liebau has the sort of youthful, crystal clear, shimmering soprano that is a perfect fit for Nanetta’s lyrical flights of fancy. The best tunes in the show are split between her and Mr. Camarena who regales us with a simply gorgeous, wide-ranging, dulcet tenor, effortlessly produced, that blossoms more the higher it goes. Massimo Cavalletti was back on stage with a potent, rafter-rattling turn as Ford; ditto Eva Mei with her well-sung and finely tuned characterization as a wilier-than-usual Alice Ford. The role of Mrs. Quickly suits Yvonne Naef to a tee, and she relished every phrase of it, putting her imposing lower middle and chest registers in over drive, and her wicked sense of fun on full alert. I have never heard Ms. Naef perform better. How utterly delightful it was for once to have a Meg Page that held her own with the other three (better-drawn) ladies’ roles. Judith Schmid was a determined foil and her sassy, ringing mezzo had fiery intent.

I wanted to like Anthony Michaels-Moore’s seasoned Falstaff more. He has certainly performed the role widely, he has the physique du role, and he has a charismatic presence. But the part seemed to be pitched about a third too low for the core of his resonant baritone, diminishing the impact of several key phrases. AM-M seemed game for anything and he was an assured, fleet-footed protagonist, although on occasion his attempts to make some cute on-stage moves came off a bit fey for such a womanizing lecher.

Peter Straka was a capable Dr. Cajus; the reliable Martin Zyssett an appropriately scruffy Bardolfo; and Davide Fersini gave us an unusually well-sung Pistola. Domeni Gloor was given more stage time than is common, and the young lad acquitted himself commendably.

DSC_0211.gifScene from Falstaff

Set Designer Rolf Glittenberg provided a very handsome playing space, with solid side walls and vaulted ceiling creating a ‘house’ out of white louvered panels. The back wall had stylized, changeable open windows and doors that gave way to a floral wallpaper in Ford’s house and then in the forest scene, to a shimmering beaded curtain with a huge Herne’s Oak pattern in the bead work. Juergen Hoffmann devised a pretty straight forward light plot, but also came up with some wonderful fantasy effects for the forest scene. Marianne Glittenberg’s costumes were eye-catching if curious. Like some of the props and set dressing, the attire in the home was inspired by 1950’s fashions, while the Garter Inn scenes were inspired by Shakespearean times. Not unpleasing, and they were all character-specific, just…curious.

There were fewer oddities in Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s direction, and he managed the traffic well enough with straight forward blocking. But Bechtolf also miscued a couple of surefire moments like the kiss-behind-the-screen which was simply not heard, and the basket toss out the window which simply didn’t ‘read.’ Too, the double marriage was clumsily managed and visually implausible. In the end though, Zurich’s talented principals carried the day, supported by some intriguing design choices and an unobtrusive director, and Mr. Gatti rallied the assembled forces to a taut and compelling finale which sent at least this ‘fool’ out of the theatre with a smile on his face.

James Sohre

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