In his whole career as an opera composer Puccini only wrote one pure comedy, Gianni Schicchi, and even that forms part of his trilogy Il Trittico, of which the other parts could hardly be more tragic. However, La bohème is also a comedy in its own way, a comedy cut short by tragedy. It starts as all best rom-coms do, with a classic “boy meets girl” moment, when Mimì pops over to Rodolfo’s flat to borrow some matches. It’s love at first sight, and Rodolfo doesn’t let Mimì’s coughing or fainting spells bother him. After some comic antics in Paris’ Latin Quarter, Mimì takes a turn for the worse, succumbing to the tuberculosis which she’d had all along, and in spite of all the efforts to save her she dies.

© Matthias Creutziger
© Matthias Creutziger

The Semperoper’s production of La bohème has much to commend it. Peter Heilein’s sets are wonderful, with Rodolfo’s flat reeking of 19th-century Parisian squalor, while the Café Momus drips with the opulence of the middle classes. The costumes too are impressive, especially Musetta’s dresses, which have all the brash elegance of the red carpet, and make her look like Satine (Nicole Kidman) from Moulin Rouge. Overall this is a visually pleasing production, not so much a feast for the senses, as repertoire operas such as this so often can be, but a well put together and thought-out presentation of 1830s Paris.

The current cast also sings fantastically. There are rarely big names at the Semperoper, but the quality of the singing is still up there with the best opera houses in Europe and, indeed the world. As Mimì, the American soprano Marjorie Owens has it all, with a full-bodied and warm lower register and rich high notes, whether they are fortissimo anguished cries, or floated pianissimos. Add this to her agility and phrasing and she is, in short, the perfect Mimì. Arnold Rutkowski, playing Rodolfo, also has a beautiful instrument, but one which lacks Owens’ power, particularly in the upper register. His is an intimate performance, with a smoothness and delicacy, which is the perfect counterbalance to Owens. Sadly conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi disagrees with the intimate approach, and as a result the orchestra consistently overpowers Rutkowski in climaxes, doubly disappointing when both orchestra and singer perform so stunningly otherwise.

The rest of the quartet of Bohemians are also impressive singers. Special mention must go to Szymon Komasa, whose fabulous baritone voice is rich at the bottom and clear and tenor-like at the top. Musetta, sung by Vanessa Goikoetxea, is a fireball of a soprano, with an unbeatable range of vocal colours and a big, but very agile voice. Sadly it was only musically that these characters performed well; dramatically they left much to be desired. The first two acts of La bohème are essentially a farce, which goes wrong in the third and fourth acts. Director Christine Mielitz is clearly acutely aware of this, but her way of realizing it is flawed. The characters’ movements are artificial and the whole of the first act is plagued by overacting and strange, unnatural character placement on the stage. In the second act, there are several moments where fake instrumentalists mime on-stage, which isn’t really necessary, and looks quite amateurish: particularly jarringly, a violinist mimes along to a woodwind tutti!

Like most Puccini operas, La bohème is an opera which is very difficult to perform badly. The music and drama are in and of themselves, so divine that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy any performance of the work. This performance has all the makings of a fantastically memorable one. The Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden are one of the best orchestras there is, inside or outside the opera house, and Morandi gives this music a sweep and drama which few conductors could match. Add in this impressive cast and a visually pleasing set coming together in the wonderful venue of Dresden’s Semperoper, and this should have been something wonderful. Unfortunately the performance was let down by the acting and the movement direction, which, though rarely terrible, were consistently poor throughout the night. Thankfully La bohème has its music and the Semperoper has its cast and its orchestra, not to mention its sets, and this carries the performance, making the overall experience thoroughly enjoyable, and a production I would gladly see again.