Could there be anything more festive than tuberculosis and poverty? Apparently not, since other than the obligatory Nutcrackers, La Bohème features the most prominently (alongside Zauberflöte) on the Hungarian State Opera’s programme. With a museum piece of a production that presents the opera as if it was a tale in a picture book, though, Bohème here is nothing but a fairy-tale like (and perfectly children-friendly) love story, well-performed and entertaining, if not entirely memorable.

© Juhász Arrila
© Juhász Arrila

Kálmán Nádasdy’s production, an audience favorite, premiered in 1937, making it possibly the oldest opera production on stage in the entire world. After almost 80 years, however, I doubt that any new run has too much to do with whatever Nádasdy intended to do with the piece: only the scaffolding, Gusztáv Oláh’s stage designs, remains truly unchanged. The set, resembling to Christmas cards, verges on kitsch, looks appropriately ancient and proves somewhat restrictive when it comes to the crowd scenes in Act 2 (the chorus having hardly any place to actually move). Nevertheless, it’s oddly charming and remains surprisingly servicable for a traditional production: the claustrophobic, barely furnished attic feels highly appropriate for the impoverished young men inhabiting it. Revival director Sándor Palcsó kept things simple and conventional, which mostly worked well (his attention to detail and crowd control in Act 2 was impressive), but sometimes resulted in park-and-bark delivery (quite ridiculously in Act 3, when the lovers were delivering their lines on opposite sides of the stage, with their backs turned on each other).

The most solid performance of the night came from Karine Babajanyan, whose Mimì was endearingly acted and gloriously sang: her Donde lieta usci was especially touching and tender. Unfortunately, her Rodolfo, Attila Fekete, could not quite match her performance. Though no announcement was made, it seemed like Fekete was indisposed, cutting his phrases short and struggling with his high notes throughout the night (especially in Act I, which sadly spoiled his aria and duet with Mimì). His burnished tone and passionate delivery saved some grace, but overall his performance was rather shaky and ultimately underwhelming.

Rivalling the leading couple, the charismatic performances of the silky-voiced, roguish Marcello of Levente Molnár and the vivacious, feisty Musetta of Zita Váradi threatened to steal the show. Similarly impressive, Gábor Bretz was a steady Colline, his elegant, inky bass truly shining in a beautifully delivered Vecchia zimarra, and the flamboyant Schaunard of Zoltán Nagy was a delight to watch. The four men also had good chemistry, their playful bantering and goofing around never feeling forced, their ensembles always amusing.

In the pit, Balázs Kocsár kept things moving smoothly, presenting a rich, colorful rendering of the score and drowing an appropriately lush, glowing sound from his orchestra, although sometimes he tended to overpower the singers in the process.

For what is a routine performance of a repertoire piece in a rather archaic production, this performance was unexpectedly lively and enjoyable, thanks to the commitment of its cast, and definitely a must-see for fans of traditional stagings.