Last night at the Liceu was incongruous. It's not just the radical nature of this Bohème that was put under the spotlight, but also the judgement of a certain portion of the audience who seemed not to know how to aim the shotgun they were carrying. A production from the Teatro Regio Torino by Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus), placed an undeserved stain on the work of Ollé and his team. To understand the problem (if there is one), we have to place ourselves in a reading of La bohème which is faithful to the libretto but whose dramaturgy has been seriously shaken up – not so much in terms of what was visible on stage, but shaken up in a very deliberate and specific way. The point is this: the world of misery in which the protagonists live does leave room for hope, but it is a faithful reflection of the here and now. Montmartre is not a fantasy neighbourhood; it is a suburb. Energy poverty is not the stuff of romanticism; it is a reality. The precarity of existence is not bohemian fantasy, it is a fact.

Roberto de Candia (Marcello), Atalla Ayan (Rodolfo)
© David Ruano | Gran Teatre del Liceu

Alfons Flores' staging features a profusion of scaffolding all over the stage. It's almost the only structural element visible, recreating the silhouette of any building, in which the characters live and the action unfolds. Elaborate lighting by Urs Schönebaum and striking costume designs by Lluc Castells outline the vulnerable atmosphere of Henry Murger's Parisian neighbourhood, romanticised by Puccini and now updated by Ollé to a Parisian suburb which is home not only to our artistic lovers but also to portraiture and social criticism. Perhaps, for some, it's an uncomfortable mirror of a place where multicultural poverty, homelessness people and street vendors are at the forefront of the battle for survival, in which there is not a hint of aesthetic romanticism. The contrast is accentuated by protagonists who do whatever it takes to make a living, to be able to eat and pay rent (shared, of course), camouflaging economic instability and future uncertainty with the pleasures of youth and the moment, without giving up hope for a future. Does that sound familiar? The dramatic axis lies precisely in this circumstantial connection of misery hidden in youth. The approach works, succeeding in uniting Puccini's youth with the youth of today, those of the baby boom generation.

Anita Hartig (Mimì), Atalla Ayan (Rodolfo)
© David Ruano | Gran Teatre del Liceu

Curiously, this same factor was also found in the cast assembled by a fairly young team, led by the baton of Giampaolo Bisanti, who was careful in the detail and description of the more lyrical moments and who also resolved with a steady hand the moments of more dramatic scope. The Brazilian Atalla Ayan sang a Rodolfo without many surprises. His singing was smooth but lacking in projection, which meant he lost presence and was clearly less prominent than his partner. As Mimì, soprano Anita Harting gave moments of real brilliance, of which her "D'onde lieta uscì" stood out. Toni Marsol was the baritone who gave life to the eccentric Schaunard; bass Goderdzi Janelidze to Colline and another baritone, Roberto de Candia, to Marcello. Frankly, the cast lacked balance. The male voices of Ayan and de Candia were below Harting throughout and Moldavian Valentina Naforniță who, as Musetta, was comfortable in the performance and showed plenty of flexibility in the highs and agility in the changes of register. The male cast were deficient in meeting the musical needs of the score – and were, paradoxically, the most applauded. To repeat, it was an incongruous night.

The setting of La bohème
© David Ruano | Gran Teatre del Liceu

Bisanti's musical reading proceeded in a direction marked by the production of the lyrical lines, recreating the descriptiveness of the music and accentuating the score's chromaticism. The voluptuousness of the treatment of the harmonies helped to present the cold, sensitive and ailing atmosphere that would resolve the narrative with the final death. It was precisely the last act that stood out in terms of orchestral intensity and theatrical precision of the score, expressing the motifs of the illness with great lyricism. The work featured a small intervention by the Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música and Cor Infantil Amics de la Unió, who performed the Parpignol scene.

Final scene of La bohème
© David Ruano | Gran Teatre del Liceu

This Bohème is a message to the present from young people of the past. Without question, it is a brilliant and sensitive production dedicated to young people, despite having had to face the negativity of the extreme traditionalism of some of the listeners. It is important to know how to choose the right titles, but it is even more important to contextualise them and give them a contemporary meaning. And, above all, to respect a job well done, even if you don't like it. To those who boo, I invite you to reflect. Meanwhile, some of us continue to applaud. 

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin