Reviews of Opera in Mumbai: A Gala and La Bohème Revisited

IndiaIndia Various composers: Maria José Siri (soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Long Zhang (tenor), Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore (baritone), Matteo Peirone (bass), Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 2.2.2017. (JSM)

Verdi – Overture to La forza del Destino; Otello (excerpts)
GiordanoAndrea Chénier (excerpts)
BizetCarmen Suites (excerpts)

IndiaIndia Puccini, La Bohème Revisited: Soloists, Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 8.2.2017 (JSM)

Rodolfo – Giordano Lucà
Mimì – Olena Tokar
Marcello – Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Musetta – Maria Mudryak
Colline – Andrea Concetti
Schaunard – Daniele Terenzi
Alcindoro/Benoit – Matteo Peirone
Narrator – Sax Nicosia

Director – Sax Nicosia
Lighting – Alberto Giolotti
Artwork – Francesco Calagnini
Projections – D-Wok

Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts has scheduled an opera-based season with three concerts and three performances of Puccini’s La bohème. This second concert in the series featured soprano Maria José Siri and tenor Simon O’Neill, accompanied by Carlo Rizzi and the Symphony Orchestra of India.

One wishes one could be more enthusiastic about what was publicized as a ‘Gala’ event, but the concert, despite flashes of musical distinction, was often uneven.

The first part of the evening was devoted to Verdi, and its beginning was perhaps indicative of what was to come. The opening bars of the overture to La forza del Destino were played with scarcely any sense of baleful foreboding, and the ensuing performance (which was on the brisk side) seemed perfunctory. The music of Alvaro’s plea and Leonora’s prayer lacked lyricism, and it all built to a raucous climax with shrieking strings and bellowing brass.

The Love Duet from Act 1 of Otello followed, with an opening that could hardly be termed atmospheric, despite some sensitive playing by Principal Cellist Boris Baraz. As the title character, Simon O’Neill sang with great musicality though he lacked the vocal heft of the true dramatic or heldentenor. He has a well-placed ‘high’ instrument with gleaming tone and total security on the top notes, which were utterly effortless and able to cut through orchestral fabric. However, his middle voice seemed somewhat pallid or grey in comparison, and his tone tended to spread on open vowels.

Maria José Siri as Desdemona was similarly musical, but she tended to become squally when singing loud above the stave, an area in which she also found it difficult to sustain soft phrases.

All of the above was evident in the duo’s performance of Act IV from the opera, done in its entirety with a supporting cast. Here, Desdemona’s repeated cries of ‘salce’ could have been more varied in tone and expression, though the last ‘prega’ from the ‘Ave Maria’ was ethereally beautiful. O’Neill’s Otello was curiously tame during the murder, nor was there much plangency in ‘Niun mi tema’, though Ms Siri was totally involved in the music and drama. Maestro Rizzi went beyond providing merely efficient accompaniment to whipping up the orchestra into a full-tilt climax during Desdemona’s strangulation.

The second half of the programme began with excerpts from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. After another sensitive solo by cellist Boris Baraz, Ms Siri gave a superb rendering of ‘La Mamma Morta’, which was truly the high point of the evening. She seemed much more comfortable here, musically secure and dramatically convincing, with a thrilling top B and another (unwritten) high note at the end of the aria.

Mr O’Neill then gave a reading of Chénier’s ‘Come in bel dì di Maggio’ where his high notes were clarion-like and free. However, his prosaic phrasing short-changed the poetic expression in this aria’s words and music, which was not helped by the fast tempo.

Tenor and soprano came together in the opera’s final duet, in a performance that could best be described as workmanlike rather than transcendent. Both singers’ strengths and weaknesses were evident here; but despite the initially lukewarm temperature, they managed to drum up a fair amount of excitement, as did the orchestra, at the very end.

In what seemed to be a case of quirky programming, it was the orchestra that ended the evening, with excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen Suites. Maestro Rizzi began with a tepid reading of the ‘Fate’ motive and a sluggish ‘Aragonaise’, after which there was a lyrical Intermezzo and an orchestral version of the ‘Toreador’s Song’ played with bite and vim…and much crashing of cymbals. The last selection was the ‘Danse Bohème’, which began rather too fast (thus compromising the gradual accelerando required) but was controlled and precise even at its most frenetic.

The tendency of this orchestra to shout during fortissimi could perhaps be the effect of the reflectors above the stage which accentuate upper-middle and high frequencies, beaming the sound at the audience. It is revealing that visiting orchestras usually have these removed: why does the SOI continue to keep them for their own performances on their home turf?

Modern interpretations of opera have now become the norm, and they range from the truly inspired to the totally ridiculous. But even the worst excesses of self-styled auteurs stop short at tampering with the music, which remains, in all but the rarest cases, sacrosanct.

Sax Nicosia, who has conceptualized and directed La Bohème Revisited, apparently thinks otherwise. His version of Puccini’s La bohème dispenses entirely with the chorus, and thus with much of its music. Act II ends abruptly with the reprise of Musetta’s waltz; and it opens with only the orchestra, as does Act III. Further cuts were made in both acts.

One wonders at the reasoning behind taking such license with Puccini’s score, as the musical losses are obvious. If, in a dramaturgical sense, it was done to focus on the personal lives of the principal characters, they exist within a public, social framework; and doing away with the latter robs the opera of this juxtaposition that Puccini and his librettists intended. Furthermore, since Mr Nicosia has taken the novel on which the opera is based, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, as the foundation of his interpretation, the hustle and bustle of Parisian café society is very much a part of that vie.

Be that as it may, this was essentially a semi-staged concert performance, billed as “an innovative new production” by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). It took place within a gilt-edged, antique frame that became the proscenium, fronted by a scrim. Nicosia himself appeared before each act as Henri Murger, speaking the words from the novel that preface it, accompanied by projections of Impressionist paintings on the scrim. This in itself was not a bad idea, as it set the production in time and place, but it continued excessively throughout the opera. The scrim went up, only to come down periodically and be flashed with animated images of fanciful moons, flowers and snowflakes as big as tennis-balls, among other things. These were irritating and distracted one’s attention from the music and action onstage. Moreover, the images seemed completely gratuitous and redundant: they didn’t offer any real insight into what one was hearing in the words and music.

The projected surtitles were often barely legible; and Mr Nicosia’s direction was generally gauche. The singers performed at the front of the stage, which had a few pieces of furniture and props. Behind this were the orchestra and the conductor with his back to the singers. Thus, there were inevitable lapses in ensemble, which even a maestro like Carlo Rizzi was unable to avoid. However, he elicited playing of great beauty from the Symphony Orchestra of India (especially the string section), bringing out many felicitous details in the music, although the orchestra was sometimes too loud and drowned out the singing.

The cast was mostly young and more than competent, with well-placed voices. They seemed totally committed to their roles. Olena Tokar as Mimì really stood out: she was utterly musical, with some magical moments, like the phrase ‘addio senza rancor’ at the end of ‘Donde lieta uscì’; and the pianissimo reprise of ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ in her death scene. However, her lower register did lack warmth, and her tone developed a hard edge above mezzo forte on high notes.

One wished the production had allowed the music itself and the musical talents of all concerned to shine, instead of compromising them with choices of questionable artistic merit.

It is perhaps easy to present such work in a milieu where a majority of the audience lacks a frame of reference in which to evaluate what they have seen. It becomes a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. But any cultural institution that aspires to be internationally recognised could, and should, do better than showcase an ill-conceived travesty.

Jiten S. Merchant