Wednesday 19 November 2014

Puccini - La Bohème (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Dan Ettinger, Franco Zeffirelli, Dmytro Popov, Krassimira Stoyanova, Marco Caria, Aida Garifullina, Adam Plachetka, Jongmin Park, Alfred Šramek

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 7 November 2014

Time hasn't been kind to Franco Zeffirelli. Just recently, the 91 year-old director was unhappy that the La Scala in Milan were selling off his famous production of Aida to Kazakhstan. It's not entirely clear whether he was upset because he wasn't consulted on the sale or whether his pride was hurt that such a famous production was being consigned to the scrapheap after decades of performances at the home of Italian opera in favour of a new modern style of Regietheater. Respect for his work and the fear of no longer being relevant is undoubtedly a factor however, with Zeffirelli talking about being "airbrushed" out of Italian opera history.

I doubt that Zeffirelli's work as an opera director will vanish from the memory quite so easily, and many of his productions are still doing faithful service in major opera houses all over the world. Practically the foundation of many opera houses, the high production values of many of his productions would be considered by a generation as nearly definitive versions of some of the most famous works of opera. For better or worse, the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Bohème has endured and has practically set the standard for nearly every other production of the work for the last 30 years. Seen most recently at the Vienna State Opera, the traditional period setting of Bohemian life in Paris in the 1840s does however look to be starting to feel its age...

...and look it too. Act I's garret scene not only has an authentically squalid and dilapidated appearance of a Bohemian residence from the 1840s, but the set looks like it actually hasn't been cleaned in 170 years either. It's grotty and cold, every detail speaking of misery and poverty. Which is how it's supposed to look. It's relevant to the characters and the situation that Puccini is depicting, the outward condition of the building contrasting with the brief flame that sparks up not just for those brief moments that Rodolfo's play heats them as it burns in the stove, but for the love that is ignited when Mimi arrives in the garret, and explodes into life in Act II's Cafe Momus scene. So overwhelming is the impression created by the poverty of Act I and the winter snows of Act III that it's almost inevitable that the brief flaming of Mimi and Rodolfo's love will be just as quickly snuffed out.

It's an effective production design then, even if it is rather old-fashioned by today's standards. It might be somewhat sepia tinted, but Zeffirelli's vision is not exactly nostalgic for an idealised version of the past. It perhaps places too much emphasis on the actual physical location, but the emotional content should still be universally recognisable for anyone who has experienced the pangs of young love or who has lived as a student and struggle to find their own place in the world. Seen in that light, there's nothing modern or revisionist about the direction or the characterisation. La Bohème speaks out for itself through Puccini's music and through the performance. It's a true masterpiece that will undoubtedly endure for those very reasons that it expresses universally recognisable situations, characters and sentiments, and Zeffirelli's staging and the singing at this 2014 revival of the production prove that well enough.

The age and familiarity of the Zeffirelli production does however have another drawback for the cast. The cast here is a strong one, but seeing other singers wearing the same costumes and going through the same motions can't help but invite comparisons to other great singers who have sang these parts in this same production in the past. The cast here are all good, but not exceptionally so, and not in any way that raises the bar for an interpretation of this work. On their own terms however, it's sung very well. Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the most impressive sopranos around at the moment. She is practically without peer in major roles like the Marschallin and Tatiana, but her Mimi is not one of her best.

Her Act I 'Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi" feels a little rushed and the poignancy of the scene isn't there. Some of the reason for that might be down to her interaction with Dmytro Popov's Rodolfo.  Popov sings the role very well, but it's a little anonymous in terms of characterisation, and there's no real chemistry at work here, something I've noticed before with Stoyanova's performances. Act III (the critical lynchpin Act of the opera as far as I'm concerned), came over much better in terms of the delivery and the sentiments expressed, showing the evident qualities that are there in Stoyanova's technique and in the simply wonderful sound of her voice. It still doesn't measure up to the high standards that have been set for this work, but that just underlines the importance of context and direction to the work as a whole. The other roles were similarly well sung, with Aida Garifullina's Musetta and Jongmin Park's Colline bringing a little more character to the piece.

The Vienna Staatsoper's next performances being broadcast are Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina on November 21st and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro on November 28th.  See the Live Programme on their website for details.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video