Heartwarming Bohème in Helsinki

FinlandFinland  Puccini La Bohème Soloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Michael Güttler (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki 21.3.2014 (Premiere) (GF)

Rodolfo, poet – Zach Borichevsky
Schaunard, musician – Jussi Merikanto
Marcello, painter – Stephen Gadd
Colline, philosopher – Koit Soasepp
Benoit, landlord – Marko Puustinen
Mimì – Stefanna Kybalova
Musetta – Siphiwe McKenzie
Alcindoro – Heikki Aalto
Parpignol – Ilkka Hämäläinen
Sergeant – Petri Pussila
Customs officer – Tuomas Tuloisela

Director: Katariina Lahti
Sets: Mark Väisänen
Costumes: Anna Sinkkonen
Lighting Design: Matti Leinonen
Choreography: Riikka Räsänen

Happiness is not the phenomenon one most readily refers to in the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì. True, the twelve or so minutes that pass from Mimì’s knock on the door until the two disappear through the door at the end of the act are some of the most magical moments in all opera, and this ecstasy is retained throughout the Café Momus act, which takes place immediately after. But this short act is so filled with disturbances from the surroundings, not least the chaotic reunion between Musetta and Marcello, that the new lovers are relegated to the background. In the third act happiness is gone and it’s all tears. We wonder what lies behind this; Rodolfo hints at jealousy in his scene with Marcello. An explanation appeared more than sixty years after the opera’s premiere. In 1957 Illica’s – one of the librettists – widow died and her late husband’s papers were handed over to the Parma Museum. Among the papers was the full libretto to La Bohème and it turned out that Illica and his companion Giocosa had written one further act that was not set to music by Puccini. This would have been act III, located after the Café Momus act. It describes a party outside Musetta’s lodgings. Her protector, the grumpy Alcindoro has turned jealous and refuses to pay her rent and Musetta’s furniture is carried out in the street to be auctioned off the next day. The Bohemians arrange a party with wine and dancing and Musetta gives Mimì a gown and introduces her to a Viscount. The two dance a quadrille, which annoys Rodolfo and makes him jealous. This is the explanation to his utterances to Marcello in act III about the moscardino di Viscontino (young snob of a Viscount). At dawn the furniture is removed for the auction.

Was Puccini wrong in deciding not to include that extra act? I don’t think so. What Rodolfo tells Marcello in the third act is fully enough to make us realize the situation, the music graphically illustrates Rodolfo’s pain and it would have been too much of a good thing with another party-scene, along with the boisterous first half of act I, the chaotic act II and the frenetic dancing and fencing at the beginning of act IV. Though Puccini occasionally can be too long-winding in his comic scenes he also knows when an understatement is enough. He trusts the power of his music and the intelligence of his audiences.

In the Finnish National Opera’s new production of La Bohème none of the central ingredients are underplayed. Rarely has the Bohemians’ attic been colder and more forbidding, the vulnerability of the artists more pitiable, the landlord more degraded when he meets his wife, having just admitted his own unfaithfulness against her. She may even have been eavesdropping! The chill of the winter morning in act III is also tangible, as is the poverty and misery in the last act; even the stove, where they burnt Rodolfo’s manuscript in the first act, is gone, probably pawned.

Against this the mix of festive and burlesque atmosphere pared with the warmth of Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s incipient love at Café Momus and the care and consideration about the dying Mimì in the finale is deeply heart-warming. Overly sentimental? No, but enormously moving. What else can it be when Puccini conjures up all the reminiscences of the first act meeting, hushes the atmosphere to a near-whisper and adds some dissonances and some further sweetness to the luscious score. Tears flowing all around me in the stalls, including my own. The bleak realism and of the sets and the all-embracing commitment of all involved made this production possibly the most endearing I’ve seen.

For once all the characters stood out as three-dimensional human beings, even Schaunard, who on paper is fairly nondescript but through the vivacity and – again – warmth of Jussi Merikanto became a credible member of the artist collective. Vocally not everything was perfect but against so much psychological insight, so much characterization, this is reduced to insignificance. Zach Borichevsky’s Rodolfo, tall, lean, good-looking was a Rodolfo of one’s dreams, equipped with a flexible, bright voice that already has made him one of the most sought-after singers of his generation. His pianissimos should teach many a can belto tenor a lesson. The diminutive Bulgarian soprano Stefanna Kybalova was a touching Mimì. Though Violetta in La traviata seems to be her signature role she gave ample evidence that there is a spinto repertoire in the pipeline and she has already taken on both Tosca and Norma. Stephen Gadd’s somewhat gravelly voice suited his assumption of the painter Marcello as a glove and though Siphiwe McKenzie’s tone had a drop or two of vinegar in it she was brilliant in Musetta’s second act aria. The Helsinki audience was already acquainted with her after appearances as Violetta last season. Koit Soasepp rotund bass has been a pleasure to hear in a succession of roles the last few years at the National Opera and here he excelled in a very restrained and inward coat aria in the last act.

The new Principal Conductor of the Finnish National Opera since August 2013 offered a reading of great contrasts: lively and forward moving in the more outward scenes, deeply affectionate in the intimate key-scenes. His choral and orchestral forces followed him admirably and not least the children in the second act were a pleasure to hear and see. The opera is sung in Italian and with surtitles in Finnish, Swedish and English – wonderful service to international visitors.

For some healthy weeping but first and foremost for an elevated theatrical experience beyond the ordinary the Finnish National Opera’s new La Bohème is a must for opera lovers – tearful but heartwarming.

Göran Forsling

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