Zurich’s La Bohème Is Moving and Magical, If At Times Baffling

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Puccini, La Bohème: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Giampaolo Bisanti (conductor), Zurich Opera, 8.12.2015. (RP)

ZurichLa BohemePerdian

Puccini, La Bohème


Director – Ole Anders Tandberg
Sets – Erlend Birkeland
Costumes – Maria Geber
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche


Rodolfo – Benjamin Bernheim
Marcello – Andrei Bondarenko
Schaunard – Adrian Timpau
Colline – Erik Anstine
Mimi – Guanqun Yu
Musetta – Shelley Jackson
Benoit – Pavel Daniluk
Alcindoro  – Valerij Murga
Parpignol – Tae-Jun Park
Sergente – Charles Dekeyser
Doganiere  – Bastian Thomas Kohl

There are two images that will stay with me from Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of La Bohème for the Zurich Opera. The first was the range of emotions that swept across Guanqun Yu’s face as Mimi, when her Rodolfo, Benjamin Bernheim, sang the final lines of his Act I aria, “Che gelida manina.” This was love – the real thing – and Mimi collapsed in relief and trepidation under the weight of Rodolfo’s passionate expression of it. The second came a short while later, as the pair left to join Rodolfo’s friends at the Cafe Momus. The rear curtain parted, and the lovers walked into a wintry landscape of fir trees laden with snow. It may have had nothing to do with the plot, or Paris, but it was beautiful.

This was the final performance of Zurich’s new production of La Bohème, and one of two in which Bernheim sang Rodolfo. I always marvel at his rich column of sound, even from top to bottom. He needed a bit of time to warm up, but once through “Che gelida manina,” his high notes soared. His singing was fraught with emotion, as was that of his Mimi, Guanqun Yu, who had sung all of the performances in the run. Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti was especially sensitive to dynamics, permitting them to sing softer than one might imagine possible. Guanqun Yu has that rare combination of fragility, both vocal and physical, that can rise over Puccini’s orchestration. She is a lovely Mimi.

The male Bohemians, including Bernheim, were more pensive than rambunctious, save the Schaunard of Adrian Timpau. Andrez Bondarenko was a moving Marcello, with a beautiful, seamless, fine-grained baritone voice. He and Bernstein sang as one in their duets. Erik Anstine’s Colline was appropriately removed from reality, befitting a philosopher, save at the very end when he realizes that the lovers need time alone. “Vecchia zimmara senti,” in which he bids farewell to his coat, was all the more poignant for the youthful timbre of his voice. Schaunard, the musician, was by comparison the free spirit of the four, and also the most observant. He could barely keep his eyes off of Mimi in the final scene and is the first to realize that she has died. The fading of Timpau’s ready smile made those awful moments all the more heartwrenching.

There were no costume changes for the principals. Thus Shelley Jackson’s Musetta was dressed in a strapless sequined gown throughout. Its glitter and harsh brilliancy captured the opportunism and the seeming heartlessness of Musetta in Act II. As Mimi lies dying, the dress symbolizes the harsh realities of life for the two women. Being a courtesan brought glamour and comfort, and in Mimi’s case perhaps a few more days of life. Loving a struggling artist just spelled hardship. Jackson’s voice sparkled with a diamond-like brilliance in “Quando me’en vo.” In Act IV, as she tells of Mimi’s collapse and later offers a prayer, her singing brought a tear to the eye.

Setting the action in the 20th century and the realistic costumes of the principals made little impact. If anything, it felt a lot like the musical Rent, an update of the same story where AIDS, instead of tuberculosis, destroys young lives. I did not get the point of the parade of French notables from the past and present in Act II, although it was no more distracting than Franco Zeffirelli’s kaleidoscope of color and movement in the Metropolitan Opera’s production. I have never seen waiters with regurgitating geese before in any context. However, unlike at the Met, the interplay between the principals never gets swallowed up due to a myriad of distractions during Act II: Tandberg sends the pack of children and the ménage of characters off stage for much of the act.

The brief tableaux at the start of the remaining three acts just did not work. The glitterati, ostensibly gathered at the Cafe Momus celebrating Christmas Eve, are seated with their backs to the audience on wooden folding chairs. The curtain rises to find Mimi and Rodolfo in bed. Why? That beautiful memory of them walking into the snow spoke more of romance than this awkward scene. The sight of rather bulky men in white snowflake costumes dancing on stage elicited laughter as the curtain rose on Act III, but what was the point? Rodolfo is a poet, not a playwright. The same scene in front of a few bored men before the opening notes of Act IV failed to make any impact whatsoever.

The rare instances of visual beauty in Tandberg’s production helped make this performance special, but in the end it was the music that triumphed. Bisanti and the Philharmonia Zurich were just superb. The orchestra played with a richness and depth that one seldom hears, and Puccini’s melodies bloomed under Bisanti’s baton. The final moments of the opera, including Rodolfo’s cries, were restrained in volume, thus increasing the anguish, just as chilling as the snow that fell as the curtain came down.

Rick Perdian