That said, La bohème proved more successful in almost every way than the relatively disappointing Carmen seen earlier in the week.
Above all, this was a triumph — perhaps predictable, but none the less worth of mention for that — for Daniele Gatti and the Vienna Philharmonic. This was the first time during this year’s Festival in which I had heard the VPO on top form — though it would not be the last. The comparison may be odious but it made me realise quite what had been missing in the Welsh National Opera performance I had heard in June. Wagnerisms abound, of course, but it takes a great conductor truly to relish them like this and to transmute them into something quite personal to Puccini. Harmony and orchestration are really what is most interesting about the composer’s work, however naggingly memorable some of his melodies might be. Gatti presided over an orchestral performance comparable to his Salzburg Elektra a couple of years ago, the sheer depth of tone resounding throughout the Grosses Festspielhaus as impressive as the shimmering, translucent beauties of Puccini’s more modernistic passages. Pacing was irreproachable, permitting the story and, most important, the score to unfold as they would, rather than imposing an irrelevant external framework upon them; unity was thereby enhanced rather than detracted from.
The cast was first-rate too. Piotr Beczala has often sounded too Italianate, indeed too Puccini-like, in much of the repertoire in which I have heard him; this is clearly where he is most at home. The odd moment at which I thought less might have been more aside, there was nothing for which to reproach him here and much to laud. If ultimately Rodolfo is hardly the most interesting of roles, Beczala did what he could with it, dynamic range and shading especially noteworthy. Likewise, unsurprisingly, for Anna Netrebko’s Mimi, a star turn if ever there were one. Netrebko truly inhabited the role, both more generally and with particular reference to Damiano Michieletto’s production too. Many of the more celebrated opera singers in this repertoire might have disdained a production that failed vulgarly to flatter them ; Netrebko relished the contemporary setting and the emphasis upon Mimi as disadvantaged. Her voice was in excellent repair, soaring gloriously above the equally glorious orchestra. I had not come across Nino Machaidze before, but her sexy, intelligent Musetta made me hope that I shall do so again soon. Massimo Cavalletti’s Marcello put not a foot wrong; nor indeed did any member of the ‘supporting’ cast. Choral singing was of the highest standard throughout — an often overlooked aspect, crucial to a successful performance of this opera.
Nino Machaidze as Musetta, Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello, Marcello Giordani as Rodolfo, Alessio Arduini as Schaunard and Carlo Colombara as Colline
In a sense, there was nothing especially radical about Michieletto’s production, though given what most houses present for La bohème, one could say that even the very fact of moving the action to the twenty-first century shows a thirst for adventure. (In this of all operas, there is surely an imperative, albeit incessantly flouted, to rid a staging of every last ounce of sentimentality.) Costumes alone, designed with flair by Carla Teti, would doubtless have had self-appointed ‘traditionalists’ spluttering: a good in itself, though hardly enough. Designs were splendid: spectacular in a good rather than vulgar-Zeffirelli sense. The Paris street and metro map that unfolded from time to time was really rather fun. Act Three’s sense of an urban, frozen wasteland, replete with obligatory burger van, was chilling, in more than one sense. Yet the production had subtler virtues too, foremost amongst which should be accounted the space it permitted one to question the work and assumptions one might hold about it. Whilst I cannot (yet?) bring myself quite to accept the metatheatrical claims made for the opera by some, however much more interesting they might make it, there was to be discovered here, even if this were not the director’s intention, an indictment of the selfishness of youth. Where Michieletto spoke of celebration, it was equally possible, and indeed in my case more so, to recognise from experience the shallow posing and disingenuousness of student-style declarations of love, purpose, and principle. Mimi became a more interesting victim, or perhaps better, the circumstances that brought about her fate became sharpened, without turning the opera into something that it was not. I wonder how this will be received in Shanghai, with whose Grand Theatre this is a co-production.