La bohème is one of the most beloved of Puccini’s operas; the libretto, by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, was inspired by the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, a collection of stories, or “scenes” vaguely connected to each other, regarding a group of bohémien. The librettists extracted from this book a more coherent love story: the falling in love of Rodolfo, a poor poet, and Mimì, a seamstress, who will die of tuberculosis, breaking audiences’ hearts since the premiere in Turin in 1896.

Juan Diego Flórez (Rodolfo) and Ruzan Mantashyan (Mimì) © Toni Suter
Juan Diego Flórez (Rodolfo) and Ruzan Mantashyan (Mimì)
© Toni Suter

Norwegian director Ole Anders Tandberg moves the action from Rodolfo’s miserable garret to a theatre, where Rodolfo’s play will be performed. Marcello, his best friend, is the stage painter, and they are busy with preparations and rehearsals. A stage within the stage is at the back, often with a door on it – free standing, not attached to anything – almost a passage through the looking glass to a fairy tale world. Mimì enters Rodolfo’s world through this door, the poor artists (who accidentally come into some money) leave their worries behind and celebrate Christmas Eve in the streets, exiting through the same door. That same door appears when Mimì is dying at the end, perhaps her passage to another, permanent “other world”. This setting has the effect of making the story more distant and less believable: the protagonists, busy with rehearsals, just do not look as miserably poor as the story requires, and the result is somewhat artificial.

During the second act, which is supposed to depict the busy Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve, the chorus showed up in the same theatre with every singer representing some prominent figure in Paris from the turn of the century to the 1950s: Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Édith Piaf, Toulouse-Lautrec, characters in famous paintings, you name it. The most disconcerting thing was that the chorus was on stage only for the time strictly necessary to sing their part, and then they would leave. This left our main characters alone for most of the time, sitting around a gigantic table, with Musetta performing only for them, which lent another layer of artificiality. At the beginning of the third act the milkmaids and the street sweepers are, in Tandberg’s vision, actors rehearsing Rodolfo’s play on the small stage, with funny costumes and paper hats. Overall, the production leaves a sense of distance, and it makes it harder to identify with the characters and the plot.

Café Momus © Toni Suter
Café Momus
© Toni Suter

Things were definitely better on the musical side. Conductor Marco Armiliato led the Philharmonia Zürich with a somewhat heavy hand, especially at the beginning, when the pit was often overpowering the stage in ensemble moments. As the evening progressed, the balance between orchestra and singers improved, with Armiliato’s enthusiasm finding a sound more passionate than noisy. The orchestra highlighted many tender, subtle details in the most lyrical parts, with great success.

The evening saw the long-awaited debut of the great divo Juan Diego Flórez as Rodolfo, who has been teasing his fans for years, adding “Che gelida manina” to his concerts. In these last few years his repertoire has evolved from light Rossini towards the Romantic roles. Rodolfo’s score does sit a bit low for him, and on a few occasions it required some effort in his middle register. However, the sheer beauty of his voice, the effortless elegance of his phrasing and the brilliance of his high notes made his debut a very successful prise de rôle. His attention to detail was exquisite: the whole introduction to “Che gelida manina” was a sequence of ravishing little phrases and nuanced dynamics.

Valeriy Murga (Alcindoro) and Olga Kulchynska (Musetta) © Toni Suter
Valeriy Murga (Alcindoro) and Olga Kulchynska (Musetta)
© Toni Suter

Ruzan Mantashyan sang Mimì with great precision and, at the same time, excitement and passion. Her full bodied soprano was warm and appealing; she was very effective in the third act aria “Donde lieta ne usci’”, singing with pathos and emotion. She perhaps still lacks a bit of charisma, but her interpretation was heartfelt and moving.

Yuriy Yurchuk replaced an ailing Konstantin Shushakov as Marcello, with a very engaging interpretation, both from a musical and a theatrical point of view. His smooth, well projected baritone was enjoyable, and his acting appealing: when he was trying to resist Musetta’s seduction he was irresistibly funny. Olga Kulchynska was Musetta, with a high, silvery soprano, very suited to the part. The other two bohemians, Schaunard and Colline, were Dean Murphy, with a warm pleasant baritone and Stanislav Vorobyov, whose deep bass showed a charming, fluttering vibrato on the high notes. His “Vecchia zimarra” was sung with gravitas and nobility, almost as a prayer.

The Zurich audience (limited in number to 900, for epidemiological reasons) warmly cheered the performance, for a thunderous success.

***11