Sweden Puccini La bohème. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera, Daniele Callegari (conductor). Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm 21.11.2015 (Premiere) GF
Direction, set design, costume design, masks and lighting design: José Cura
Mimì – Yana Kleyn
August Strindberg/Rodolfo – Daniel Johansson
Edvard Munch/Marcello – Linus Börjesson
Tulla Larsen/Musetta – Sanna Gibbs
Søren Kirkegaard/Colline – John Erik Eleby
Edvard Grieg/Schaunard – Jens Persson
Benoit – Niklas Björling Rygert
Alcindoro – Tomas Bergström
Christmas goat/Parpignol – Jon Nilsson
Readers may be excused for raising an eyebrow while reading the cast-list and finding names like August Strindberg, Edvard Munch, Søren Kirkegaard and Edvard Grieg among the characters. I did the same when I saw the press release a while ago and being hardened after so many “modernizations” of operas through the years I admit my heart sank a bit. It was indeed with some dejection I walked through the chilly November evening on my way to the Royal Opera House. But things changed quickly. Before the curtain opened we could hear a pianist trying out the opening of Morning Mood – aha! Grieg is there in the attic, composing! When the opera proper started we were transported to a traditional late 19th century Bohème milieu with actors in period costumes. The only difference was that the backdrop was copies of Munch paintings and the characters were easily identified as the above mentioned Scandinavian cultural personalities. The music was the same as usual but there had been careful changes of the text to fit it to what we saw. We were decidedly not in Paris as in the original but in the town where we were – Stockholm. The background to this concept is so interesting that I take the liberty to quote José Cura’s notes in the programme book:
“In the 19th century, Scandinavia produced some of its greatest cultural achievements. It was a golden age of creativity. In 1885, Hans Jaeger, a very influential intellectual of that era, together with a bunch of radical comrades, founded the Kristiania-bohêmen group. Edvard Munch was part of it.
In June 2012, the Royal Swedish Opera invited me to direct and design La Bohème for the 2015/2016 season. I was walking through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), when I looked up and saw that a light was shining through the top window of that beautiful red building which is almost an iconographic postcard of Stockholm. This room could have been my Bohemian’s attic, I thought. Why not set La Bohème in Gamla Stan? And if my production would take place in 1800 Stockholm, why not take inspiration for the portrayal of my Rodolfo from August Strindberg? I went to Strindberg’s house/museum in search of ideas. It was there that I discovered a book titled Bohême Suédoise … The coincidence was too big. Investigating the Strindberg/Bohemian connection, I found his novel, Röda rummet, (The Red Room), a satire of Stockholm’s society in which he narrates the adventures of a young idealistic civil servant called Arvid Falk, who quits his job at the public administration to become a journalist and author. Even if any resemblance between Arvid Falk, August Strindberg and Puccini’s Rodolfo is a mere coincidence, I was convinced to have found the concept for my Bohème production: Hans Jaeger´s Kristiania-bohêmen, with Edvard Munch as one of its leading figures, and Strindberg´s Bohème Suédoise, were strong enough arguments to build my show.”
The end result is a wholly engaging performance, basically conventional but fresh with the Nordic setting and the revamped characters. There are many comical moments in the original and Cura never underplays them. This Bohème is grossly entertaining and there were laughter and giggles a-plenty during the premiere evening but the love-scenes and the tragedy, sketched in act III and culminating with Mimi’s death were indeed heartrending and many a tear was shed during the finale. José Cura is indeed a phenomenon. Besides being one of the world’s greatest tenors he has primarily singlehandedly controlled all the various functions that build a performance. A polymath, a Leonardo da Vinci of our time.
With the assistance of the Royal Orchestra and Chorus on their most Italianate behaviour and with Daniele Callegari so flexible and lenient towards the singers, this was performance was the ideal synthesis of music and words. The mostly young cast were eminently well suited to their roles. Yana Kleyn’s Mimì (the only one of the main characters who hadn’t been given a new identity) was as close to the ideal as could be imagined. I saw her international debut in this very role five years ago at Opera på Skäret (review) when she already was very good (“She seems cut out for a great career”, I wrote) and she has rubbed down the metallic edge I mentioned then, lending even greater warmth to her tone. Her first act aria was sensitively sung with fine nuances but also gloriously brilliant and Maestro Callegari considerately made a pause after the aria to give room for a well-deserved round of applause. Daniel Johansson’s excellent Pinkerton in last year’s Madama Butterfly was a promising warm up for the much bigger role of Rodolfo and he has all the attributes that make a good Puccini tenor: rounded tone, good breath, brilliant top notes and lovely soft singing. Like Ms Kleyn he is also a natural actor and moreover tall and handsome.
Sanna Gibbs has previously sung Papagena at the Royal Opera but Musetta (or in this production Tulla Larsen, Munch’s mistress) is her first principal part in the house. With her lively temperament, her vivid acting and her glittering light coloratura soprano she is just cut out for the role and she will no doubt be a valuable member of the ensemble in the future. The other three Bohemians are also excellent, though it is a little disconcerting that Edvard Grieg, who was a very small man, is played by Jens Persson, the tallest member of the whole ensemble.
All in all an utterly satisfying production of La Bohème. The migration from Paris to Stockholm works without a hitch.