James Conlon’s La bohème in Rome

Puccini, La bohème: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome, 21.6.2011 (JB)

Conductor: James Conlon.
Director: Marco Gandini.
Sets: PierLuigi Samaritani.
Costumes: Anna Biagiotti

Rodolfo: Ramòn Vargas
Mimi: Hibla Gerzmava
Musetta: Patrizia Ciofi
Schaunard: Vito Priante
Marcello: Franco Vassallo
Colline: Marco Spotti

Ernest Newman attributed the immense popularity of La Bohème to its capacity to laugh as well as it weeps. It’s not just the continuous melodic invention which carries the opera forward, but some scarcely noticed (but effective) subtleties of character-drawing and orchestration which constitute Puccini’s unparalleled craftsmanship. That, of course, includes a very considerable stage craft. Puccini was largely snubbed by his contemporaries, chiefly because he was not exploring a new musical language. Maybe. Music was his tool, but his language was essentially that of the theatre. And in this he unequivocally plumbed new depths. And as with all masterly techniques, the mechanism of the craftsmanship is so well incorporated into the whole as to be hardly noticeable. But maybe it is a critic’s job to raise the bonnet of this superb vehicle to show what keeps the motor running so smoothly.

A conductor’s job too. And as the Rome Opera discovered in this score, you can’t have a better chap on the podium than James Conlon. Puccini uses the harp almost as a continuo is used in Baroque opera: a few well-placed chords which frequently and unobtrusively waft the music in the right direction when struck with the right touch, or just occasionally, like a well-disciplined, friendly traffic policeman, bring the show to a temporary pause. Conlon drew all this perfectly from the orchestra’s fine harpist, Agnese Coco, whom he had the good sense to bring to the centre of the orchestra and raise on a podium. She was admirable: a soloist who must be clear but so unobtrusive as to never sound like a soloist.

Puccini makes constant use of pizzicato strings, which also move the action forward. Tidiness is the order of the day here and Conlon challenged the players into the tidiest playing they have ever delivered. This is also a question of an awareness of Puccini’s phrasing: sometimes the pizzicato is phrased into the rest which follows it, sometimes the phrase stops short of the rest, which can also mean (but not necessarily) chopping it. That in turn gives another two pizzicato styles. James Conlon saw to all this immaculate detail like no other conductor I know.

I could go on. But perhaps this is the moment to close the bonnet on the superb, original Puccini vehicle and take a look at what was going on on the stage.

PierLuigi Samaritani’s handsome sets were originally seen a good many years ago at the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania. With costumes by Anna Biagiotti. Samaritani passed away at the age of 51 in 1994, and the present production is by Marco Gandini. Samaritani captures the pathos as well as the fun of Bohemian Paris. The attic which opens and closes the show strikes a fine balance between realism and fantasy. The second act outside the café in the piazza is a spectacular delight. But most impressive of all was the City Gate of the third act, with snow thickly on the ground and gently falling from the sky. We had to have two twenty-five minute intervals to accommodate the changes of these elaborate sets. But it was worth it.

Mexican tenor Ramòn Vargas delivered a beautifully moving, che gelida manina. His voice has an attractive, ringing top, even though it becomes a little reedy when he forces. Throughout, he sounded comfortably within the character of Rodolfo and his diction was perfection: no need to even glance at the surtitles.

Hibla Gerzmava could have been singing in Japanese. Even following the surtitles it was impossible to understand any attempt at Italian, if attempt there was. Hers is a fine voice but Mimi is assuredly not her role. I would much like to hear her as Elsa in Lohengrin or maybe Sieglinde. It sounded as though she passed the night cutting down an enormous voice to a size to fit her concept of the ailing Mimi. Curiously enough, she did get much more into the role as the show progressed. A distinguished American critic, who had heard the performance a few nights before, warned me that she was not singing well. Agreed. But if you spend a whole evening cutting down the size of your voice, isn’t it impossible to sing well?

Patrizia Ciofi was a total disaster in the role of Musetta: flat in intonation throughout and irritatingly stagy in movement. Musetta’s waltz song can easily steal the show: the bit that everyone comes away singing. Ciofi’s was instantly forgettable. But it was interesting to hear that even with such a heavy burden as this disaster, James Conlon kept the show beautifully paced.

All the other roles are bit parts, but they were nicely attended to: Franco Vassallo as Marcello, Vito Priante as Schaunard, Marco Spotti as Colline. This calls for some balanced ensemble singing. And with James Conlon on the podium you may be sure that this was perfectly attended to.

Jack Buckley