It is a noble goal: to present contemporary opera productions in the Netherlands and Belgium in cooperation with international opera houses and artistic teams. This has been the aim of the Dutch Stichting Internationale Opera Producties, which has been active since 2000. This season the organization brings Puccini’s La bohème performed by the State Opera of Plovdiv. As one of the most famous titles in the Italian repertory, this opera promises a romantic night out.

La bohème (State Opera of Plovdiv) © Georgi Vachev
La bohème (State Opera of Plovdiv)
© Georgi Vachev

The evening opened with captivating tones from the pit, conducted by Dian Tchobanov, who led the orchestra with audible pleasure. Under his guidance, the string section formed a stable component, producing a light, pleasant sound. The orchestra as a whole sounded at its best at the soft, embellished fairy-like moments in the music. The bells were particularly charming in Act III.

The orchestra supported a fine cast, with Chiara Giudice making an endearing Mimì. She made an impressive sound in terms of her vocal strength. Even when singing softly during her character's weaker moments, she sounded steady, rather than passive. The sound of tenor Raffaele Abete as Rodolfo was less consistent. Sometimes one feared that his voice would break, but a moment later he sang out the highest notes effortlessly and with ardour. Together with Giudice, he delivered a breathtaking “O soave fanciulla”. Emilio Marcucci's Marcello was also noteworthy, whose warm baritone captivated. The principals were accompanied by a female ensemble that sounded rather unpleasant in the higher registers, but a firm male choral voices evoked the customs officers at the start of Act III. 

The risk with this opera is overdoing the grotesquery surrounding Benoît and Alcindoro, and in this particular performance, Orlando Polidoro (Benoît) and Maria Panova (Musetta) (Maria Panova) fell back into caricatures due to exaggerated movement and gestures. We are told that Marcello once loved Musetta, but it is hard to understand why he would feel for such a ridiculously extravagant woman. Musetta’s character becomes less caricatured in the Act II and one even starts to appreciate her. Unfortunately that does not take away the fact that Panova sounded shrill on some of her high lines.

La bohème (State Opera of Plovdiv) © Georgi Vachev
La bohème (State Opera of Plovdiv)
© Georgi Vachev

The absolute star of this opera was neither singer nor musician; it was the mise-en-scène. The romantic Dickensian sets by Carmen Castañón were delightful. The garret became a light loft with rooftops around and a stunning view of the Paris skyline; Café Momus was presented as a French café terrace and had a façade with enchanting bright lights; the toll gate was a wonderfully large set, decorated by the ensemble in pretty, old-fashioned costumes by designer Steve Almerighi. The latter got the chance to give full measure in the Momus scene, where colourfully dressed ballet dancers and harlequins presented a show to both the audience on stage and us in the auditorium.  

This production, directed by Maria Elena Mexia, was adequately performed and presented with generous attention for the eye. The creative team's passion for the work resulted in a wonderfully romantic performance. All in all, this was a very decent version of La bohème that is worth seeing, even if the lavish designs and glorious music by Puccini are its strongest features. 

***11