Puccini : BohemeFlorencia, 2011 (Audio)
Director: Carlo Montanaro
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La bohème returned to Florence in the production inaugurated three years ago for the autumn Festival “Recondita Armonia”, whose declared purpose was to present elegant, traditional, crowd pleasing versions of immortal masterpieces, in clear contrast to the more “experimental” and not infrequently controversial productions often staged during the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
Stage director Mario Pontiggia, aided by scene and set designer Francesco Zito, did nothing that could even remotely alarm “regie opera” foes.
There is no denying that his is a particularly good-looking Bohème. The attic is a huge room with exposed iron beams, reminiscent of a post-industrial loft with a background wall composed with blocks of opalescent glass that allow a natural light diffusion. The same attic returns in act IV so full of plants and flowers as to look like a hot house. This time the wall has a door opening on a similarly flowered terrace overlooking the Paris skyline. Although very captivating, such ambiance looks less the squalid hideout, the “tana squallida” of the libretto, than an extremely desirable piece of real estate. The four Bohemians are too well groomed in their bourgeois cream coloured suits and green vests. In addition to a mere general desire to present an attractive picture, this sanitization may represent the director’s intention to highlight the young men’s strive towards a better life. Nonetheless, it clashes with the “miseria”, the poverty that Marcello “with great despondency” laments when Musetta asks him if they have wine or coffee for the dying Mimì. The luxuriant jungle-like terrace may be a marvel to look at, but why don’t they close the door when Mimi complains that she is so cold?
The Cafè Momus is a gazebo with art deco coloured stained glass (the action has been transposed to the time of the composition of the opera) at the very centre of a tableau easily recognizable as a Latin Quarter swarming with the usual street sellers, children, nannies and several ladies of easy virtue. It looks like it might have been borrowed from many other Bohèmes, but it is functional and creates the right festive aura. Act III was the most successful: a thick mist scarcely penetrated by a dim light shrouded in a muffled atmosphere suburban Paris, towered by a railway bridge.
Conductor Carlo Montanaro’s approach to Puccini’s score raised more than a few perplexities. His tempos were characterized by a constant swiftness: this would not necessarily be a negative factor, if such speed was matched with an accentuated theatricality, a pressing narrative rhythm in which the freshness emanating from (most) vocal timbres and which is so naturally paired to the ensemble scenes of acts I and IV was allowed to become the central dramatic knot. But if the rhythm is frequently uncertain and oscillating, or – more often – metronomic and obsessive (Benoit’s episode is under this point of view almost deadly); if the conductor gives incongruous importance here and there to over-elaborated details, whose undeniable effect and even beauty is nevertheless extraneous to the general expressive picture; and if – I mention it last, but it is the kiss of death in a “conversational” opera such as this one – the orchestra tends to overwhelm the voices, mortifies them by hindering the logical articulation of the phrases and contrasting their natural melodic expansions with an absurd phonic thickness and even more absurd rhythmic jerks; if all of this takes place, certainly we will not have one of those tearjerker Bohèmes that never fail to irk those who despise Puccini not so much for his music but for the “Puccinism” of many of his interpreters. On the contrary, we would obtain something worse: an aseptic and icy Bohème with scarce atmosphere.
The performance of the cast, and of the two protagonists in primis, must therefore be evaluated taking into consideration the objective difficulties originating from an orchestra frequently in conflict with the singing. Aquiles Machado, last heard as Rodolfo not long ago at the Puccini Festival of Torre del Lago, reconfirmed his strengths in this role. His timbre is attractive, warm and virile in the middle register, with a more than respectable top allowing him to sing “Che gelida manina” in D flat major. His fraseggio is rich with nuances and a strong expressive chiaroscuro tending however to privilege the prankster friend and the jealous lover rather than the elegiac, dreaming poet. This does not mean that the tenor abstained from producing moments of pure poetry such as a gorgeous “smorzando” on the A flat on the words “alla stagion dei fior” at the end of Act III, or care lavished on a seemingly minor phrase in the Act IV duet with Marcello, the “mia breve gioventù with its pp un poco rallentando, as if the tenor were aware that these words enclose the very essence of this masterpiece. Just as I wrote for his recent performance, Mr. Machado is impressive for his emotional participation and absolute awareness of his surroundings. He was by far the winner of the evening.
Carmela Remigio’ s Mimì was more problematic. While it is true that she would have benefited from more leisurely tempos and a more variegated, softer orchestral fabric, certain harsh As natural, and especially a timbre dry in overtones in the middle register are negative factors that no conductor would be able to completely conceal. One of the moments where one can spot an excellent Mimì is – in the Andante “Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire” the expansion “Sei il mio amor e tutta la mia vita!”, right at the last four syllables of the phrase, F-B flat-A flat-E flat, with that arduous ascending fourth interval on the high B flat on the vowel “I” and immediately after A flat again on a “I”. Here, Ms. Remigio’s legato was anything but smooth and uniform. The soprano was also wanting in expressivity. “Ma quando vien lo sgelo”, “ bada, sotto al guanciale”, “ho tante cose che ti voglio dire” were all cold and manufactured phrases.
The rest of the cast was on a generally high level. Alessandra Marianelli portrayed a graceful Musetta with none of the soubrettish acidity that so often characterizes this role. Stefano Antonucci’s baritone has always been fairly small and has not blossomed with age, but Marcello does not require vocal tonnage as much as interpretative finesse, of which Mr. Antonucci supplied in considerable quantity. His Act IV duet with the tenor was in my view the vocal highlight of the performance, with both singers in absolute respect of Puccini’s dynamics (the baritone’s messa di voce on the F sharp of “una bocca procace” was a delight). Marco Vinco (Colline), with his sturdy true bass voice received one of the longest applauses after “Vecchia zimarra”; Simone Del Savio was a Schaunard of good taste and warm, rich voice; and Andrea Cortese absolved double duties as Benoît and Alcindoro with dignity.
The chorus led by Piero Monti gave a vibrant and accurate performance, but I am not sure that a fine chorus, a first-rate Rodolfo, and a superior supporting cast can make up for a colourless leading lady, frantic conducting and a production whose primary purpose seemed to be that of being very easy on the eyes.