Youthful Exuberance: La bohème at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Puccini – La bohème

Mimì – Natalia Tanasii
Rodolfo – Gianluca Terranova
Marcello – Christian Luján
Musetta – Bárbara Barradas
Schaunard – Diogo Oliveira
Colline – André Henriques
Beno
ît/ Alcindoro – João Merino

Coro dos Pequenos Cantores da Academia de Amadores de Música, Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Domenico Longo.
Stage director
Emilio Sagi.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Thursday, March 17th, 2022.

This was the third attempt by the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos to perform Emilio Sagi’s staging of La bohème.  The first, back in 2019 was lost due to a labour dispute; the second, in 2020, was a victim of the plague.  After spending the last two years performing concert versions of operas such as Iolanta and La Wally, there was a jubilant atmosphere in the air of this historic house tonight, with the orchestra back in the pit, and the chorus and principals fully costumed and interacting with each other on stage. For this run of five scheduled performances, with an additional sixth charity performance for Ukraine added on Sunday afternoon, the house engaged a cast of mainly local singers, with two international guests.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

Sagi’s staging of Bohème is the best thing I’ve seen from him.  He ideally manages to encapsulate that combination of the sheer joyfulness of the first two acts, with the tragedy of the second half of the evening, populating the stage with genuine flesh and blood characters.  Sagi updates the action to 1960s Paris, a time of turbulence, encapsulated by the women with banners harassed by police as they try to block the parade at the end of Act 2.  What Sagi also does, is make clear that first encounter between Mimì and Rodolfo is far from being an accident – Mimì is seen listening to the group as they head out for the night and chooses her moment to visit Rodolfo carefully.  There’s a tenderness and truthfulness between Natalia Tanasii and Gianluca Terranova’s Mimì and Rodolfo that I found utterly believable.  Similarly, at the start of Act 4, the chemistry between Terranova’s Rodolfo and Christian Luján’s Marcello is so convincing, clearly two close friends who genuinely care for and appreciate each other.  The moment that Diogo Oliveira’s Schaunard realizes that the life has ebbed away from Mimì is so vivid, particularly so when we can see the realization spread among the remainder of the cast. 

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

That said, there were a couple of small issues.  The set for the attic isn’t optimally designed for a theatre such as this in a horse-shoe shape, since it was impossible to see Marcello painting from where I was sitting at the front of the Plateia.  Similarly, Sagi does populate the stage with a number of extraneous extras.  In many respects, these add some extra insight – the marching band members walking across the stage during Act 1 is a pleasant reminder of what is to come – but in others, it feels a little de trop and risks drawing attention away from the principals.  As Bárbara Barradas sings ‘quando m’en vo’’, the extras dance in slow motion, which added a magical sense of atmosphere to the scene, providing us with a view that felt stereotypically Parisian.  That said, Sagi gives us a visually impressive show that abounds in small details and presents the work clearly and logically.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

While being seated at the front of the Plateia meant that I gained so much detail from the interactions between the principals, it also meant that I was also able to bask fully in the wonder of Puccini’s glorious orchestration.  Especially when played as fabulously as the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa played it for Domenico Longo tonight.  He was able to draw out a deep pile carpet of string sound, while the brass playing had such uncommon warmth and depth, that when they opened up for those many climaxes they bathed the room in a wonderous golden glow.  Longo’s tempi were generally sensible although things ground to a halt somewhat in ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ and in Musetta’s waltz song.  His pacing for Act 4 also felt on the slow side, luxuriating certainly, but at the risk of sagging tension.  Overall, however, it was an idiomatic reading, supportive to the singers and allowed the evening to work its magic.  The house chorus, prepared by Giampaolo Vessella) was on deliciously lusty form, singing with satisfying firmness of tone, and clearly loving being back on stage and in costume.  The children’s chorus was similarly enthusiastic and had clearly been well prepared by Vítor Paiva.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

Tanasii brought her bright, well-placed soprano to the role of Mimì.  She had no problems in soaring over the Puccinian orchestra, the voice had wonderful reach on high, the silvery tone ringing out with ease.  She’s also an engaging actress, with a highly expressive face.  There was a touching hopefulness to her expression as she had her first encounter with the Rodolfo.  Her sung Italian is clear, but some of the vowels are slightly exotic and she could have made more of those distinctive double consonants.  There was a sense perhaps, that she had fully learned the role but doesn’t quite live it yet.  It was very well sung and had much to offer, but I left with a sense that Tanasii will bring even more to the role in years to come.  Undoubtedly an artist to watch.  Terranova sang Rodolfo in a wonderfully Italianate tenor, full of sunny warmth.  He used the text wonderfully, using it as a starting point to colour the line and brought the words to such vivid life.  The voice, does sound like an instrument that needs to be carefully managed – his legato has a tendency to be lumpy and aspirate-filled and the top can lack body, sounding rather tight.  He made the big C in his celebrated number through sheer willpower.  He took the closing phrases of Act 1 in unison with Tanasii, which was regrettable as he was definitely a bit short up there.  Still, the clarity of his diction, his engaging stage manner and palpable chemistry with his castmates, these are what I will take away with me from this evening.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

As Musetta, Bárbara Barradas gave notice of a serious talent.  Her soprano is focused and bright in tone, with the ability to float high-lying phrases with immaculate control of dynamics.  Given her flexibility and ease on high, I would certainly like to hear her essay Zerbinetta at some point.  Luján sang Marcello with a grainy baritone that also required some careful navigation.  His stage manner and willingness to use the text did give pleasure.  Oliveira sang Schaunard in a handsome baritone with an easy top, while André Henriques brought lugubrious warmth down below to underpin the ensembles ,and sang his aria with dignity.  The remaining roles were all acceptably taken and reflected the admirable standards at this address.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC

As a resumption of staged opera at this venerable house, this made for a terrific evening in the theatre.  We were given a staging that managed to penetrate deep into the heart of the work, and take us on a journey from the excitement of first love, to the joy of friendship, to the tragedy of a life cut short.  It was satisfyingly sung, with Barradas in particular proving to be a singer to watch.  The palpable enthusiasm on stage and the sheer dedication of the cast made for a very rewarding evening.  It was greeted with an instant standing ovation from the São Carlos public.

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