The Kungliga Operan presented for the second time a production of La bohème by tenor José Cura, who moved the action from Paris to Stockholm and transformed the characters into actual historical figures: Rodolfo becomes the playwright and poet August Strindberg, Marcello is the painter Edvard Munch, Colline the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and Schaunard is the composer Edvard Grieg. Musetta becomes Tulla Larsen, a woman who had a long and stormy relationship with Munch, while Mimì remains a fictional character.

<i>La bohème</i> © Emma Svensson (2015)
La bohème
© Emma Svensson (2015)

All these changes are reflected in the Italian text, and the effect is a bit disconcerting at times. The names are italianized into "Augusto", "Eduardo" and such; Tulla, for the sake of prosody, becomes "Tulletta". The friends hang out at "Berns" instead of "Momus" and, in the fourth act, the milkmaids go to Mosebacken instead of Saint Michel. At the beginning, Rodolfo-Augusto sings about watching the smoke rise from a thousand chimneys in Stockholm and not in Paris. I laughed: "Nei cieli bigi vedo fumar da mille comignoli Stoccolma," instead of "Parigi" doesn't rhyme!

<i>La bohème</i> © Emma Svensson (2015)
La bohème
© Emma Svensson (2015)
The idea worked fairly well overall, but seemed a little preposterous. The benefit of moving the story to Stockholm and making real Scandinavian artists the protagonists is never made clear. The stage was set with different paintings by Munch, which were projected and used as backdrops for the various scenes, while the rest of the sets were fairly traditional, as were the direction and the acting, which emerged as both natural and engaging.

Rodolfo-Strindberg was Jonas Degerfeldt, whose voice is too light for Puccini. He has beautiful high notes, but the legato is lacking and, therefore, his phrasing does not do justice to the music. His acting was convincing and engaging, though. The Russian soprano Yana Kleyn, as Mimì, has a voice much more suited to the part, with more volume and a timbre closer to the ideal of post-romantic music. She lacks a bit of self-confidence, and she doesn't seem to own the role completely; perhaps her age is a factor here. The two main lovers gave a good performance in the last act. Mimì's death was moving and emotional, and Rodolfo's tears very believable.

The young South African Luthando Qave was Marcello-Munch, and his was the best voice of the evening. His baritone is extremely warm and beautiful, and his technique is solid. He manages a flawless legato while acting very convincingly, portraying a young, funny, naive character. He is not even 30 years old. It will be interesting to see how his voice evolves.

Musetta-Tulla-Tulletta was Susanna Stern, a young coloratura soprano with good high notes and a strong metallic voice – at times too metallic. It took on a colour, especially in the central register, that was a bit harsh at times. Her performance of Musetta's Waltz was very good, and her scenes with Qave intense and enjoyable.

<i>La bohème</i> © Emma Svensson (2015)
La bohème
© Emma Svensson (2015)

Jens Persson and John Erik Eleby, two Kungliga Operan veterans, completed the cast as Schaunard-Grieg and Colline-Kierkegaard. John Erik Eleby delivered his Coat Aria with heartfelt emotion and a strong, smooth, round bass.

The Kungliga Hovkapellet is in its comfort zone with Puccini: their sound is well suited to music of this period. The performance was led by young Venezuelan Rafael Payare who conducted with great enthusiasm, with tempi that were respectful of tradition and of the singers. He unleashed the orchestra to drive the most emotional moments with great expression. If I have to find a fault, the legato and the phrasing of the strings could have been better in a few (very few) points, such as "Oh, sventata!" in the first act. But these are pedantic details: the performance was a deserved success.