Puccini – La bohème
Mimì – Federica Lombardi
Rodolfo – Saimir Pirgu
Marcello – Mattia Oliveri
Musetta – Marina Monzó
Schaunard – Damián del Castillo
Colline – Manuel Fuentes
Benoît/Alcindoro – Jorge Rodrígez-Norton
Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, Escola Coral Veus Juntes, Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana / James Gaffigan.
Stage director – Davide Livermore.
Palau de les Arts, València. Monday, December 19th, 2022.
La bohème may be one of the most performed operas in the world, but it’s also one that, when done well, becomes a completely overwhelming evening in the theatre. It’s also a work that seems to bring the very best out of its directors, even those one might not have been convinced by previously. There’s a universality to this story, combined with Puccini’s glorious score, that speaks directly to the heart and soul. Above all, there’s a sense that the good moments in life are worth holding on to for as long as possible. When Mimì and Rodolfo agree to break up in the spring, Mimì sings ‘Vorrei che eterno durasse il verno’, and that wanting to hope that something beautiful lasts forever is perhaps inherent to the human condition, simply because the ‘dì futuri tenebrosi e oscuri’ seem to be constantly around us.
I start with these thoughts because this evening’s Bohème was a very special evening indeed. Davide Livermore’s production has been around for a while – and indeed was released on DVD in 2013 featuring tonight’s Marcello, Mattia Olivieri, as Schaunard. Livermore sets the action in period, but uses modern technology to magnify imagery, whether using giant screens on the left-hand wall of the set, or having Marcello paint his paintings on a large TV screen at the front. I must admit that I stopped paying attention to these after a while, because the personenregie was so convincing, a group of friends and lovers who genuinely related to each other. Livermore definitely gives us a big show in Act 2, with fire eaters, people on stilts, and exaggeratedly athletic waiters. He fills the stage with humanity, filling us with those high spirits that mark Act 2, making them feel even more poignant because we know that sadness lies on the other side of the intermission.
Livermore may not be the first director to make Schaunard and Colline a couple, but there’s a tenderness here between Damián del Castillo’s Schaunard and Manuel Fuente’s Colline that felt so tangible and realistic. For gay opera lovers who spend so many hours in darkened theatres watching heteronormative narratives, seeing genuine love between two men as part of a bigger canvas, felt both so universal and yet also real. There were so many small moments this evening that felt so human and so tender, particularly between Federica Lombardi’s Mimì and Saimir Pirgu’s Rodolfo. There was a wonderful moment where one could see Pirgu genuinely kicking himself as he wished Mimì farewell with ‘buonasera’, transforming into happiness when she realizes that she’d lost the key and he realized that he still had a chance to get to know her better. Similarly, the moment where Mimì started to break up with Rodolfo in Act 3, felt so painful thanks to Lombardi’s utterly convincing acting, both vocal and physical, and her journey from resolution to wanting to hold on to her time with Rodolfo forever. Above all, this is a staging where Livermore manages not only to give us spectacle but also brings us deep into the human condition through intricate and believable personenregie, tonight revived by Emilio López.
Of course, Livermore’s staging wouldn’t have had the overwhelming effect that it did, if the musical side of things wasn’t so strong. This house is home to one of the greatest opera orchestras and one of the greatest opera choruses in the world. Tonight, under the leadership of the house music director, James Gaffigan, they really did deliver. Gaffigan secured playing of remarkable quality from his orchestra. He was so alive to the quicksilver changes of mood of the score, using the strings to drive forward the romance with swelling hope in Mimì and Rodolfo’s big Act 1 scene. There was something so transparent in the string textures, with twinkling harps coming through, but yet also a big, deep-pile carpet of sound. In the closing measures, Gaffigan brought out both the tenderness and longing, but also the emptiness that Puccini sends us home with. His tempi were pretty much ideal throughout, giving space to his singers, but also allowing the music to flow, without any loss of tension during Mimì’s gradual demise. The choruses, including a superbly trained group of children, were outstanding – the adults singing with theatre-filling amplitude and focused tone.
As Rodolfo, Pirgu gave most generously of himself. I must admit that it was perhaps a little too generous and I was surprised that Mimì wasn’t blown off the couch they were sitting on, such was Pirgu’s big-hearted force as he sang to her. The voice carries well and I did wish that in ‘che gelida manina’ he’d pulled back a bit on the volume, and found a bit more poetry in his phrasing of this celebrated number – he could certainly reduce the decibels a bit and still be heard in this exceptional acoustic. The high C was nice and full, and Pirgu is a most congenial stage presence. In the final scene, the pain as he realized that Mimì had gone was utterly tangible, yet not overdone. Pirgu’s is an agreeable Rodolfo and gave much satisfaction, but I do wish he’d brought more tenderness to his Act 1 music.
As Mimì, Lombardi brought her familiar textual awareness to her music. Hers isn’t perhaps the most refulgent soprano to have essayed this music, but it is one of the most genuine and human. She uses her milky tone to colour the text, opening up on high with an agreeably fast vibrato redolent of a fine prosecco. Lombardi brought so much insight to the text, her wish to hold onto winter forever was devastating, and in her final scene that sense of having so much to say yet aware of there not being enough time to say it was painfully palpable.
Olivieri gave us a very fine Marcello in his gravity-defying baritone. The voice is so firm, from top to bottom, the top in particular produced with notable ease. His duet with Rodolfo was also a highlight of the evening, the two voices intertwining with warmth and humanity. Marina Monzó was a vivacious Musetta, singing her ‘quando men’vo’ in a bright, shimmering soprano, perhaps a bit narrow in tone, but wonderfully easy on top. Del Castillo sounded slightly stretched by Schaunard’s writing, his baritone rather dry in tone, but his chemistry and tenderness with Fuentes as Colline was palpable. Fuentes sang his ode to the coat in a handsome, warm and resonant bass with an impeccable legato. In the double assignment of Benoît and Alcindoro, Jorge Rodríguez-Norton sounded relatively youthful and healthy in tone.
This really was a very special evening in the theatre, one that all who were present will surely remember for a very long time to come. Livermore gave us a staging that was full of humanity, one that took us from the highest of highs, to the greatest of sorrows. But of course, it would not have had the magical effect it did have, had the musical side of things not been so positive, and tonight was one of those evenings where every single element gave so much satisfaction. The Valencian audience responded frequently with generous and uninhibited applause.
[…] La bohème is an opera that, when done well, can be an unforgettable evening in the theatre. There was magic on the stage when I saw Davide Livermore’s production in València this month. It had been cast with imagination – Federica Lombardi gave us a Mimì that abounded in sheer humanity. Saimir Pirgu was an extremely enthusiastic Rodolfo, portraying a poet who really wore his heart on his sleeve. Mattia Olivieri was a gravity-defying Marcello, while Marina Monzó sang a diamantine Musetta. Having Damián del Castillo and Manuel Fuentes incarnate Schaunard and Colline as clearly forming a third couple, made this feel an even more inclusive and inspirational evening. Then there was the playing of the house orchestra under James Gaffigan, bringing out so much beauty in the surging textures, and the house choruses singing with such firmness and unanimity of tone. It was one of those magical evenings that reminded us what it feels like to fall in love and how important it really is to savour every single moment. It was an extremely special evening. […]