Pēteris Krilovs’ 1995 production of La bohème hasn’t quite matched the 41 years of John Copley’s Covent Garden staging, but here in Latvia, it’s reached a similar status, being performed just about every year. The greats of Latvian opera have been through this production: Alexanders Antoņenko has held Mimì’s icy hand, Kristine Opolais has lain dying clutching her muff, as has Marina Rebekah. Egils Siliņš has lamented the glories of his ancient coat, while Andris Nelsons’ career as an opera conductor started with this production at Latvian National Opera. Of the current crop of big Latvian singing stars, only Elina Garanča is absent (for the prosaic reason that La bohème doesn’t have a mezzo role).

Raimonds Bramanis (Rodolfo)
© Andris Tone

The production may be venerable, but with a very young cast, in which four of our six principals were making their house debuts, this was a chance to take a sneak peek at the future of Latvian opera.

The two non-debutants, Raimonds Bramanis and Marlēna Keine, both look ready for exposure beyond the country’s borders. Bramanis might perhaps be grateful to Puccini for allowing Rodolfo a gentle start before his first big aria, because his voice was decidedly stretched in the opening minutes. But he had warmed up by the time he reached “Che gelida manina”, in which he was able to display a warm, rounded, generous timbre, with phrasing that flowed naturally and dynamics that were persuasive but never forced. As the evening progressed, Bramanis got steadily better: his duet with Marcello was heartbreaking and superbly lyrical.

What Musetta needs is stage presence, and Keine has that by the bucketload. She stormed onto the stage and took complete charge of proceedings, drawing every gaze with the shock of dark hair and flashing eyes. Her voice certainly had the required strength to match, although going somewhat hard edged at the top. It will be interesting to see her in less extreme, more lyrical roles.

Marlena Keine (Musetta)
© Andris Tone

Making her debut as Mimì, Russian soprano Tatiana Trenogina clearly showed that she had the voice for the role: it’s strong through the register, particularly in the chest voice, it’s in tune and it never goes screechy (although we could do with better Italian intelligibility for both her and Keine). But she made something of a nervy start: in Act 1, phrases were not well aligned between Trenogina and the orchestra – she could be either dragging slightly behind the beat or urging ahead of it. As the evening progressed, however, these wobbles disappeared: her duets with Rodolfo in Act 3 were compelling, and her Act 4 death scene everything we might have wished.

The strongest of our four debuts came from Rinalds Kandalincevs as Marcello, who allied a smooth, powerful baritone to a pleasantly engaging stage persona. Edgars Ošleja delivered a solid “Vecchia zimarra” as Colline, while Kalvis Kalniņš was somewhat underpowered as Schaunard. What was notable, however, was the enthusiasm and commitment with which all six of our principals acted their roles. Of course, the heart of La bohème is Puccini’s hyper-romantic music, but it really works to its full when we see singing actors in whom we believe, whether it’s the larking about of the young lads, the seductive sweetness of Mimì, the stormy relationship between Musetta and Marcello or the heartbreak at the end. And the acting last night convinced totally.

Act 4
© Gunars Janaitis

Andris Freibergs’ set design, however, is showing its age. All four acts are built on a single set, whose main feature is a steel-and-glass back wall. For Acts 1 and 4, it works well enough: a draughty Paris attic translates well, in my imagination at least, into a draughty disused Soviet factory whose space is so large as to be impossible to heat. But the set doesn’t work so well for Act 2, where Freibergs doesn’t really make a serious attempt at the challenge of portraying an inside scene in Café Momus and a very outdoors street fair, and it’s very bland in the Hell’s Gate scene, together with a certain confusion generated by the juxtaposition of 19th-century costumes and late 20th-century scenery and props.

In the end, the sets are perhaps best viewed as a Brechtian blank space in which the singers can exercise their acting and vocal skills. And with the help of a well-balanced, well-paced account of the score by Martiņš Ozoliņš and the Latvian National Opera Orchestra, that’s exactly what they did. If this is a representative glimpse of the future of Latvian opera singing, we look to be in safe hands.

David's trip to Riga was sponsored by Live Riga