La bohème tells the tale of a group young people trying to scrape a living in the middle of 19th-century Paris. Some of them are artists, and their life is a continuous fight against their lack of resources: trying to work, avoiding the landlord who asks for overdue rent, sudden splurges at the arrival of some unexpected income. They laugh, fall in love, break up; all is faced with humour, enthusiasm and joie de vivre, until tragedy hits: Mimì is already suffering from tuberculosis, and their poverty accelerates her death sentence. Puccini wrote some of his best music for this destitute bunch; the lack of a villain, the very fact that only economic and social circumstances, and pure bad luck, are to blame for this tragedy, are described by a joyful, sad and poignant score, free of many of the verismo excesses often ascribed to Puccini.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Miroslav Dvorsky, Roman Trekel and Kwangchul Youn
© Monika Rittershaus (2001)

Director Lindy Hume moves the action to the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, as the costumes by Carl Friedrich Oberle indicate; this transposition is not unbelievable, but it doesn’t add much to the performance. The main idea was that the whole story is reminisced by Rodolfo, grown old, who was almost always on stage: a silent presence, his eyes full of longing and tenderness. A screen often appears at the change of scene, covering the scene as a gigantic window: with ice crystals at the beginning, which melt into rain (or tears?) as the story progresses.

The setup is fairly traditional, with some updates: while Rodolfo and Marcello’s room is as described in the libretto, in the second act the scene is empty, the chorus very static, until the façade of the Café Momus descends onto the stage when people start singing “Momus, Momus”. The custom post of the third act is replaced by a sort of waiting room in a train station. A very successful idea occurs at the end of Act 1: when the two lovers start their duet, the walls of the garret move away from the stage (sets by Dan Potra) and the singers are left almost floating in space, lost in their love at first sight, while the snow falls on them. It was very romantic and moving.

Alexander Soddy led the Staatskapelle Berlin in an engaging performance, driving the action forward with energy and confidence. At times, the orchestra expressed an intimacy, a tenderness which supported the singers in their display of emotions in a most effective way.

Zvetelina Vassileva (Mimi), Miroslav Dvorsky (Rodolfo) and Roman Trekel (Marcello)
© Monika Rittershaus (2001)

Eleonora Buratto’s smooth lyric soprano was perfect for Mimì. In the first act aria “Mi chiamano Mimì” her voice soared strong and powerful, in an enthusiastic performance which, however, at times seemed to lack emotion. This must have been an artistic choice because, after the intermission, her interpretation showed deep affection, from the very beginning, in her duet with Marcello. In Act 4 she broke our hearts in her death scene, with ravishing pianissimi showing a sweet, soft resignation. There was hardly a dry eye in the audience (yours truly started crying at “Sono andati”).

Before the performance, Benjamin Bernheim was announced as sick, but his performance was exciting, his light tenor secure and easy on the high notes. He even sang “Che gelida manina” in the right key, his high C was brilliant! The only hint to his imperfect vocal condition was that his voice tended to find a nasal placement more often than usual. He showed amazing breath control, though, and the natural, effortless elegance of his voice gave life to a noble, naïve but almost aristocratic Rodolfo.

© Monika Rittershaus (2001)

Adriane Queiroz was a spirited, appropriately sensual Musetta, her soprano very rich, with a good, strong middle. Marcello was Alfredo Daza, who sang with a beautiful, very well projected baritone, giving life to an honest, hot-headed but warm-hearted painter. Adam Kutny (Schaunard) and Jan Martiník (Colline) completed the quartet of bohemians; Martiník gave a moving rendition of the Coat Aria (“Vecchia zimarra”). This is a short, unusual number, which sets the tone of the whole scene, defining the transition from the silly laughter at the beginning of Act 4 to Mimì's tragic death. The audience is always waiting for it, and Martiník delivered a simple, almost matter-of-fact interpretation with his beautiful, smooth bass, his top register elegant and understated.

Olaf Bär as Alcindoro/Benoît completed an exciting, successful cast; the chorus prepared by Anna Milukova did justice to Act 2 with good dynamics and interpretation, even if the somewhat static scene did not help represent the hustle and bustle of the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve. The children’s chorus (Vinzenz Weissenburger) performed with precision.