This La bohème at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples was not too far away from the traditional idea one has of Puccini’s masterpiece. One reason why it is perhaps the most loved (and performed) opera ever written, is the ultimate meaning it gives to the term “romantic”, which will be forever welded together with the icon of the starving Bohemian artists living in a freezing garret in Paris. And this was the flavour we got from this staging.  

Erika Grimaldi (Mimì) and Gianluca Terranova (Rodolfo) © Teatro di San Carlo
Erika Grimaldi (Mimì) and Gianluca Terranova (Rodolfo)
© Teatro di San Carlo

Nonetheless, Francesco Saponara’s direction, although not awful, was not an asset to this production. There were positive aspects to it, like the lovely sense of the relationships one could perceive between the cast members, which lit up many moments, until their really strong reactions to Mimi's death. On the contrary, one weird idea was having Mimì’s dead body unexpectedly taken away at the end by four unknown mourners, which diluted the effects of one Puccini’s most famous dramatic devices, the last action frozen while the final chords resound tragically.

Fortunately, it is very difficult to perform La bohème badly, as the music and drama in it are so magnificent that it’s quite impossible not to appreciate any performance. Puccini's opera is an exquisitely built mechanism which can tolerate every possible staging idea, and continues to pour lyricism into the deafest ears.

But it is the way the director read the existential philosophy of the Bohemians that was most annoying: the young artists portrayed by Puccini and his librettists are indisputably children of the bourgeoisie, whose comforts they reject, choosing a (temporary) existence of happy poverty, with all the freedom and pleasures of goliardic life.

<i>La bohème</i> at the Teatro di San Carlo © Teatro di San Carlo
La bohème at the Teatro di San Carlo
© Teatro di San Carlo

In the first two acts, they are no more than teenagers gaily overstepping ethical boundaries; but the very moment Mimì steps into the garret, the shadow of adulthood starts looming over their lives, to fully take form in the final scenes.

From this perspective, the four students' desperation being more picturesque than existential, Saponara’s choices did not make much sense overall: he seemed to pay the four comrades the compliment of taking their poverty too seriously, as social rebellion. So he has them wear beggar-style clothes, and turns Café Momus into a lower-class tavern instead of a venue for beautiful people, as it is supposed to be (would Alcindoro take Musetta there, otherwise?). Moreover, the scene in the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve was loud, chaotic and packed even for as large a stage as the San Carlo’s. All stage actions and singing movements seemed left to the goodwill of the cast.

The last two acts of Bohème are more tragic than any other theatre piece, and this leaves every possible flaw unnoticed. In the end, with the death of Mimì, the four grow aware of their coming of age, finally called to adulthood and responsibility. One cannot help remembering what the famous dramatist Eugène Ionesco predicted about the French students who revolted in May 1968. "They will all become notaries"; many of them have.

The cast was very good overall, with soprano Erika Grimaldi hitting the highest spot. Her Mimì was made with passionate phrasing and a rich, intense lower register. She sang with a lovely sense of melody, and a feeling of the more melodramatic elements of the character’s inner life. All the great moments were very finely rendered and well integrated into the drama. Unfortunately, her acting ability was not as proficient as her singing.

<i>La bohème</i> at the Teatro di San Carlo © Teatro di San Carlo
La bohème at the Teatro di San Carlo
© Teatro di San Carlo

She was supported by a fine performance from Gianluca Terranova who, as the poet Rodolfo, had a robust sound, even if in some moments his voice was not so secure. He may have been a little tired, nonetheless he is becoming one of the most required lyric tenors with his ease in the high register and great stage presence. The Act III quartet was one of the best moments of the opera, intense and moving, never being overcome by the dialogue of Musetta and Marcello.

Playful Musetta was performed by Anna Maria Sarra who, in a more intimate venue than the second act, would likely get the best out of the character’s lively music, but in that confused, overcrowded setting, she seemed quite lost: she tried to sing the waltz “Quando me’n vo” as vivaciously as she could, but her voice was still too intimate, given the circumstances.

Alessandro Luongo sang well, with a firm voice and strong emotional presence, showing a special talent for interpreting Marcello’s wit, self-confidence and passion. The supporting roles were appropriately cast. Matteo Ferrara diligently sang the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. Biagio Pizzuti was a strong Schaunard with his full-bodied baritone. Enrico Iori was a solid Colline, yet the “Vecchia zimarra” aria, remains one of the dilemmas of this opera, whether it is self-pitying or ironic. However, the compassion and delicacy with which Iori sang it suggests that Colline is sincerely moved.

The setting arranged by Lino Fiorito, was essentially a broad open space, with a balcony from which a winding stair led to the garret, while a snowy Paris was sketched on the backdrop. In the pit, Stefano Ranzani gave a diligent accompaniment of the score, and conducted the, singers, orchestra and choir with finesse and control, ensuring supreme balance between them.

***11