After his haunting Les Dialogues des Carmélites in Amsterdam last month, Robert Carsen traveled south with another legendary production, reigniting sublime romance at the Opera Vlaanderen with his timeless interpretation of La bohème. Premiering here in 1993, the Canadian director’s understated elegance on stage counterbalances Puccini’s highly charged melodrama, resulting in breathtaking scenery and powerfully emotional dramatization of the characters. With extraordinary singers, this production delivered on the drama, even though debuting conductor Antonino Fogliano was at times heavy-handed with an otherwise nuanced Symphony Orchestra Opera Flanders.

© Annemie Augustijns
© Annemie Augustijns

The first act opens with Rodolfo and Marcello in their attic, relegated to a diamond square on centre stage surrounded by sheets of paper representing both the snowy outside and the (often empty) pages of Rodolfo’s writing. Carsen reduces performance area, but includes a piano, painter’s easel, books and a typewriter to reflect an intimate bohemian world in that tiny square on stage. Much of Carsen’s direction required the actors to huddle close to each other, resulting into a charged connection with each other as well as the audience.

Luciano Ganci brought sincerity and a fresh authenticity to Rodolfo. His playful bantering with William Berger's Marcello delivered some engaging comic moments. Throughout, Berger impressed with his gentle yet rich voice and his affable characterization of the painter. Producing the most subtle of facial expressions, Monica Zanettin presented a modest and truly loveable Mimì. With her natural and clear phrasing, she conveyed a sincere fragility bordering on innocent virtue, disarming me completely as I got swept away in her singing.

Adding to these passionate moods, Jean Kalman’s lighting with its highly atmospheric, colourful hues enhanced Carsen’s dramatic staging with astonishing nuance. Backed by romantic passages on the harp, Kalman’s beam passed from blue into purple. The chemistry between Ganci and Zanettin propelled the emotional intensity to a powerfully moving “O soave fanciulla”.

In a sensational scene change, the attic apartment quickly made way for Café Momus in a highly charged second act. Energetic, daring and later even sensual, the impressive Choir Opera Flanders electrified the stage, the camaraderie highly seductive and inviting. Shaping part of the crowd, the two children’s choirs Sterling and Opera Flanders additionally grounded Carsen’s world with a genuine sense of humanity.

© Annemie Augustijns
© Annemie Augustijns

Towards the end of second act, sensuality enriched Carsen’s bar scene as erotic lovemaking amongst the worn easels and scattered pianos served to perfect his image of the bohemian world without being off putting in any way. Music, Dance, Love! I wouldn’t have minded an evening in Carsen’s Café Momus... especially when Musetta arrived.

Hasmik Torosyan's high-maintenance Musetta channelled a provocative Anaïs Nin in a Roaring Twenties, sparkling black gown complemented by a brilliant, auburn bob. Torosyan created a dark, powerful impression, almost overwhelming with a rich vibrato that suited her character’s extravagant presence.

Compared with the others, Carsen’s Act III was a bit of a letdown, visually, but great singing made up for this. On a darkly lit, barren stage, in a tiny house the size of Act I's attic, the party continued, but this time the audience was not included. As the actions unfolds, the choir erupts together with an overpowering orchestra. A couple of times a sense of disorder took over as people ran around stage, but those moments were easily overshadowed by the tremendous singing of the cast, especially the supercharged aria from Ganci.

Carsen’s simplistic elegance exploded again during the final act, as what must have been at least a thousand yellow flowers enclosed Rodolfo's attic room. Spring had arrived with Mimì the seamstress about to die. Kalman’s lighting flourished again: yellow, orange and red tinted this time. In “Vecchia zimarra”, Leonard Bernad's Colline provoked tears in a poignant farewell to his well-loved overcoat. Sincerity, particularly in his expression, though still restrained acting, generated a heartfelt sympathy for the benevolent philosopher. Finally, with “Sono andati?” Ganci and Zanettin achieved another magnificent moment of romance.

Fogliano led the Symphony Orchestra Opera Flanders through Puccini’s vibrant score. With great timing, he let the wind section complement the comic moments in Carsen’s staging. Strings revved up with glowing depth. However, he pushed the orchestra beyond Puccini’s chamber opera dynamic, leading to more than a few passages where the orchestra overpowered the voices on stage. These balance issues held Carsen's powerfully staged production back from being truly outstanding. Still, if you love La bohème, you do not want to miss this deeply moving production.