Juan Diego Flórez shines in La bohème revival at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich, 8.3.2020. (JR)

Juan Diego Flórez (Rodolfo) and Ruzan Mantashyan (Mimì) (c) Toni Suter

Director – Ole Anders Tandberg
Assistant director – Stephanie Lenzen
Set designer – Erlend Birkeland
Costume designer –  Maria Geber
Lighting designer – Franck Evin

Rodolfo – Juan Diego Flórez
Marcello – Yoriy Yurchuk
Schaunard – Dean Murphy
Colline – Stanislav Vorobyov
Mimì – Ruzan Mantashyan
Musetta – Olga Kulchynska
Benoit – Cheyne Davidson
Alcindoro – Valerij Murga
Parpignol – ae-Jin Park
Sergente – Arthur Pirbu
Doganiere – Arjen Veenhuizen

When I first saw this Ole Anders Tandberg production five years ago, I must admit to having been utterly bemused by it: there seemed to be an inordinate number of ideas detracting from the opera itself (see my colleague’s review click here). On seeing the revival, I must say that the production is growing on me. There is humour throughout, from the takeaway pizza, the regurgitating geese and the market-stall ladies dressed as and moving like chickens; the Parisian icons such as Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld have, thankfully, been marginalised but the childrens’ chorus all dressed as mini-Toulouse-Lautrecs and chimney-sweeps remain. The dream-like sequences including snowy fir trees, a pseudo-Napoleon appearing on horseback, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ turning into a tourist statue and the appearance of Santa Claus as a toy-seller continue to baffle. All four acts are set inside what looks like a Norwegian Village Hall, complete with stage for the theatre piece (the ‘Red Sea’) which Marcello is writing.

Vocally, this revival is a complete triumph. Apparently, as I learned after the performance, Juan Diego Flórez was rather under the weather and considered cancelling – there was no announcement craving indulgence – but thankfully, he persisted and triumphed. Remarkably, this was his debut in the role and it fits him well. He was a mite uneasy at the start, and rather unrelaxed throughout, but his voice was in prime condition. He was in a class of his own. During an impeccable rendition of ‘Che gelida manina’ you could have heard a throat lozenge unwrapped; the applause was long and ecstatic.

His Mimì however did not fall under his shadow; Armenian soprano Ruzan Mantashyan was superb in all registers; she will sing the role again soon in Munich.

The three other ‘students’ fared well. Konstantin Shushakov was indisposed, so in stepped forceful Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, who, as Marcello, was splendid throughout. He is well known to Covent Garden audiences, and sang the role of Marcello at Opera North last year. Stanislav Vorobyov, as Colline, seemed to have stepped right out of Boris Godunov; he looked and sounded like Varlaam; his farewell to his old coat was touchingly rendered. Dean Murphy as Schaunard had less to sing than his colleagues and fared well.

Olga Kulchynskaya as Musetta looked the part and her glittering top notes sparkled.

Marco Armiliato in the pit coaxed some luscious sounds from the Philharmonia Zurich; in Act I he was simply too loud for the students who were still warming up their voices.

Minor roles were all taken more than adequately, making this, as a whole, a La bohème to cherish. It will be remembered mainly for Juan Diego Flórez’s debut; he will no doubt make this role more his own in coming years.

A brief word on the Coronavirus: the Swiss Government has banned all public events where more than 1,000 might gather. Luckily, Zurich’s gem of an opera house holds a mere 1,100 so with some judicious pruning they are (just) able to continue performances – for the time being.

John Rhodes

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