Germany Puccini, La bohème: Soloists. Kinderchor und Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Asher Fisch (conductor). Recorded live on 27.11.2020 and available as Video-on-Demand (click here) until 3.1.2021. (JPr)
Production – Otto Schenk
Set design – Rudolf Heinrich
Chorus master – Stellario Fagone
Mimì – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Musetta – Mirjam Mesak
Rodolfo – Jonas Kaufmann
Marcello – Andrey Zhilikhovsky
Schaunard – Sean Michael Plumb
Colline -Tareq Nazmi
Parpignol – Andres Agudelo
Benoît – Christian Rieger
Alcindoro – Karel Martin Ludvik
A customs officer – Christian Valle
A customs sergeant – Oğulcan Yilmaz
Should opera productions have ‘best if used before’ dates? Maybe sometimes yes, though watching Otto Schenk’s La bohème in this livestream from Munich I mused, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’. It obviously seems to have influenced John Copley’s Covent Garden production of blessed memory which premiered in 1974, which – it is hard to credit – was five years after Schenk’s La bohème was first seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper! Well, I must admit Rudolf Heinrich’s sets – in video director Christoph Engel’s closeup camerawork – looked rather tired and in need of refurbishment, but at the end of one of the best Bohèmes – in the pervading circumstances – I have ever seen and heard, this hardly mattered.
If you get the opportunity to see this now or at any other time, you will find Puccini’s stage directions literally transferred to the stage. It all looks as if it has come to life from romantic paintings of nineteenth-century Paris. The rooftop garret was realistic, and it seemed as if people really struggled to live and work there. Then Café Momus – where artists gathered – might have looked exactly like that on Paris’s Right Bank. Finally, the Barrière d’Enfer for Act III was totally realistic with a gate, a tree (naturally!) for Mimì to conceal herself behind, and a light dusting of snow. What sets this production apart – if you forgive the pun – is that this faithfulness to the text extended to the sensitive performances of all concerned and how they truly brought this old warhorse to life for a jaded, old warhorse of a commentator like me!
The four bohemians – a poet (Rodolfo), a painter (Marcello), a musician (Schaunard), and a philosopher (Colline) – look as though they have been genuinely striving for success in Paris for too many years. The first tender moments leading to when Rodolfo and Mimì’s hands touch for the first time and she exclaims a briefly shocked ‘Aah!’, are brilliant. When Mimì lies dying in bed, Rodolfo tenderly cradles her, and – because the interactions have been so sensitive to the emotions in Puccini’s music – it makes her death deeply affecting. Nobody – and I mean nobody – in this splendid cast just stands still, faces forward, and delivers! Even if – like me – you think you have seen the opera enough times then do watch this one because all the singing and acting is so dramatically credible that it will make you relive Puccini’s familiar plot with fresh eyes and ears. (The only suggestion of limited rehearsal time was the botched business with the fake candles in Act I and the rather underwhelming bohemians’ shenanigans at the start of the final act.)
Obviously, coronavirus pandemic restrictions blight this performance which was filmed without an audience: instead of a packed stage for Act II there are only the principal singers, the toy seller Parpignol (Andres Agudelo), a young boy soprano and the maître d’ of Café Momus who wears a face mask! The chorus must have made their contribution from somewhere else; though with less numbers required for Act III it is played out as normal with the men and women of the chorus involved as usual.
This La bohème was extraordinarily well-cast with all the singers perfect for their roles with a number whom I was seeing for the first time. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was making her Munich debut as Mimì and she was mightily impressive from her tender response to burgeoning passion in the opening acts to Mimì’s death scene that was alarmingly realistic – particularly for our current covid days – by operatic standards. Andrey Zhilikhovsky’s rich baritone portrayed the entire gamut of the emotions Marcello goes through, especially when he is put through the wringer by his off-on-off-again lover Musetta. Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful, exuberant Schaunard, and a real bass, Tareq Nazmi, was imposing both physically and vocally as Colline, bringing considerable depth of feeling to his Coat aria (‘Vecchia zimmara, senti’). Singing with considerable musical insight, Mirjam Mesak’s glamorous Musetta was something more than just ‘a tart with a heart’. Whilst retaining her materialism, this Musetta seemed truly capable of genuine affection and selflessness. There was no weak link in the cast with excellent vignettes from those with even the smallest of roles.
However, the revelation of this La bohème was Jonas Kaufmann’s Rodolfo and the mystery is why we have not heard him onstage in this role since Zurich in 2011? Kaufmann has occasionally sounded severely taxed vocally during recent years and in roles that perhaps do not genuinely suit him, but here the years seemed to have fallen away and he was outstanding. Most importantly, his totally natural Rodolfo was just ‘one of the lads’ and part of an accomplished ensemble. Kaufmann’s ‘Che gelida manina’ was lyrical, ardent, with expressive freedom, beautiful tone, and a radiant high C. However, Kaufmann reminded us that the real tragedy in the opera is not what happens to Mimì, but it is Rodolfo’s loss, and – because of Kaufmann – his grief at the end must have moved even the hardest of hearts.
In all this it could be easy to overlook Asher Fisch and his splendid Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Fisch conducted persuasively, with balance, focus, considerable detail, and great intensity where appropriate.
Undoubtedly, a La bohème for our time and all time!