Geneva’s Intimate and Effective La bohème

03/01/2017

Puccini, La bohème: Soloists and Chorus of Grand Théâtre Geneva, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Paolo Arrivabeni (conductor), Opéra des Nations, Geneva, 29.12.2016. (AL)

boheme

Cast:
Mimì – Nino Machaidze
Rodolfo – Dmytro Popov
Marcello – Andrè Schuen
Musetta – Julia Novikova
Schaunard– Michel de Souza
Colline – Grigory Shkarupa
Alcindoro – Alexander Milev
Benoît – Wolfgang Barta

Production:
Director – Matthias Hartmann
Designer – Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costumes – Tina Kloempken
Lighting designer – Tamás Bányai

Like Mozart opera and more so than any of Puccini’s other works, La bohème is an ensemble piece with a few big standout numbers. It succeeds if the roles work well together, reminding us that opera is an art form in which the result is more than the sum of its parts.

Geneva’s production had an ensemble that met these criteria. The singers sang, moved and acted as would a group of young people. Each had a distinct personality and all blended well together.

A previous Musetta herself in Salzburg in 2012, Nino Machaidze has graduated naturally to the role of Mimì. She was somewhat cautious in Act I, with a middle range that took time to warm up, but she had the scope of the role in the key Act III arias, where drama takes precedence over celebration. Her finale was appropriately moving.

Rodolfo was Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov. His voice is not a natural Italian one and he tended to force on several occasions. However, he had the notes, phrased with care and was a true poet during the tender moments. Marcello was sung by Austrian baritone Andrè Schuen. His voice was strong over the entire range, convincingly portraying a fraught character.

Julia Novikova was having an off-night. Perhaps the cold winter weather of Geneva had taken some shine out of her voice, but she was not comfortable with her high notes and her Musetta lacked charm.

The smaller roles were well cast, with local singer Wolfgang Barta making the most of the role of Benoît.

As usual, the Chorus of the Grand Théâtre is one of the great assets of the place. They sang well and were a strong contributor in the dynamic Act II. Veteran Italian conductor Paolo Arrivabeni got things moving along with care and feeling. The orchestra was a little loud at the beginning of Act I, but things quickly settled down. His tempi were lively and provided good cantabile support for the singers.

The Swiss Romande Orchestra woodwinds were on good form, but the strings were somewhat feeble. A year and a half without a chief conductor is a long time for any ensemble and this reminded us that the orchestra will need some rebuilding.

Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s settings were sparse, a few curtains here and there, a simple table and mattress and that was all. But it worked effectively, allowing us to focus on the story and the characters. This matched Matthias Hartmann’s minimal and delicate staging, with an effective and sensitive Personenregie. It was the opposite of the decadent and over-the-top production by Zeffirelli whose enduring longevity remains a personal source of puzzlement for me. Hartmann achieved so much by adding little touches, from Rodolfo gazing at the snowflakes falling, expressing how fast life passes, or Mimì asking him to sit by her right before her Act I aria, showing the character resolution…

This was Opera as ‘chamber music’. There were no stars or histrionics. It was an inclusive production that had coherence, subtlety and focus and reminded us, if indeed we needed reminding, what a glorious masterpiece this work is, how wonderful it is to be young and that youth does not last.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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