When Salzburg Festival director Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses from the audience. Soprano Anna Netrebko, the festival’s biggest non-conductor star, was feeling fine (though as Mimì she would shortly die of consumption). But the excellent tenor Piotr Beczala had decided a mere ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would be another star, Jonas Kaufmann, who is at the festival singing Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. After the forty minutes had elapsed, Pereira announced the plan: Beczala would act the part while Kaufmann would sing from the side of the stage.

La Bohème Ensemble  ©  Silvia Lelli
La Bohème Ensemble
© Silvia Lelli

It turned out to be a wonderful performance. While an awkward arrangement, the miming approach preserved Damiano Michieletto’s detailed, sensitive direction. The set presents a series of skewed perspectives: the entire stage raked from left to right, backed with enormous windows that dwarf the characters. In Tableau 2, an enormous map of Paris is covered with tiny buildings. Tableau 3 takes place on a desolate highway that curves vertically upstage like a Tableau from Inception, a tiny rest stop providing shelter. In Tableau 4, the Bohemians have been evicted, and sit by a pile of their belongings in the street.

But the sets, while striking, are never convincingly integrated into the production, nor are they particularly visually beautiful. The production succeeds in its small touches and fresh perspective on the characters and their relationships. Instead of a sugary romance, we get a lovable but flawed group of contemporary young adults going about their lives in Paris. Mimì needs someone to light her cigarette, wine is drunk from red plastic cups, and Tableau 2 presents us with an orgy of holiday consumerism with shopping carts, Santa, elves, reindeer, and ending in video game systems for all the children. In contrast to this wealth, the roadside scene shows trash collectors, prostitutes, and other members of the modern underclass. Mimì is timid and insecure, Rodolfo flatters her but doesn’t respect her. Musetta is given an unusually sympathetic treatment, confident and stylish and enjoying herself, instead of the conventional simpering narcissist. Michieletto has a naturalistic approach of Personenregie, mostly realistic and restrained, occasionally breaking out into a grand gesture—but only when called for by the music.

It is particularly remarkable that the production worked as well as it did in the face of Daniele Gatti’s eccentric conducting. While the Wiener Philharmoniker sounded fantastic and their ensemble was impeccable, Gatti seemingly has only two modes: very slow and very fast. Very fast was reserved for the recitative-like sections, where the singers struggled to articulate or make anything of the text at such a clip. Very slow was for anything remotely lyrical, where the singers struggled to make their breath last long enough, and in a few cases (notably the Tableau 2 quartet) left the musical line indiscernible.

Anna Netrebko was perfectly cast as Mimì, singing with luscious, chocolately tone from the lowest notes to the highest. She showed a beautiful sense for the line of the music, even when it was moving in slow motion, and has an emotional honesty and sense of integrity, never seeming self-indulgent or upstaging. And yet when it’s her moment, she has enormous presence. She began “Mi chimano Mimì” almost inconspicuously, facing Rodolfo stage left, her back to the audience, but built to ending stage center, turning around dramatically for the final phrases.

Beczala was a sympathetic and yet somewhat self-serving, immature Rodolfo. As his voice, Kaufmann gave an intensely emotional, almost verismic performance. Kaufmann's dark voice is not obviously Italianate and he had sounded thoroughly Heldentenorian as Bacchus in Ariadne the previous night. But here he sang with a melting legato line and wide dynamic variety, floating soft phrases and letting out high notes with metallic power. Coordination across the very wide stage and through Gatti’s unusual tempos was sometimes a challenge, but under the circumstances very impressive. (Pereira’s claim that this substitution was extraordinarily last-minute was supported by Kaufmann’s khakis and plain white shirt. In the rarefied air of Salzburg, one puts on a tie if one has time. The festival and the audience were very lucky that this worked out.)

Nino Machaidze’s tone is thin and sometimes out of tune on high notes, but she is an excellent actress. As Marcello, Massimo Cavaletti sang with warm, round tone but was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra and, in Tableau 3, Netrebko. The other Bohemians were, like Cavaletti, all native Italian speakers, and one wonders if this linguistic comfort helped seem so spontaneous in their singing and acting. Carlo Colombara made the most of the coat aria, where Gatti’s funeral tempo seemed to actually work. The supporting roles, chorus, and children’s chorus were outstanding, fully living up to Salzburg’s reputation for quality.

While certainly an unusual evening, this Bohème was fortunately not most memorable for its cast change but for being affecting, original, and beautifully sung, and that is always something to be happy about.

La BohèmeAnna Netrebko and late replacement Jonas Kaufmann sing La Boheme at the Salzburg Festival4