Cobwebs in the Parisian garret were unfortunately all too real. A stagnant production with neither insight nor charm squarely sat on this emotional barnstormer.
Before the opera started there was an announcement that the tenor Piotr Beczala had recently suffered a severe cold, and asked for the audience’s “understanding”. Titters spread through the opera house.
Despite this Beczala’s voice had the most authentic, zinging tone of the whole cast. In the blissful Act 1 duet he looked distracted, or as if he wasn’t truly aware of the words he was singing, but Beczala was really in trouble with the offstage climax, when he accidentally floated up onto a wrong note. There followed a suspiciously long interval and an announcement that Beczala would be replaced by Teodor Ilincai, from the second cast, who by happy coincidence, was in the audience.
Such a major change would surely wreck the opera’s continuity and destroy any emotion invested in the character- but no! Rodolfo goes through such a huge and arbitrary change of personality between Acts 2 and 3 that it didn’t damage the opera at all. Ilincai’s voice was smaller, and lacked Beczala’s vivid tone, but what worked in his performance was his awkward physical reverence for Mimi. Whether this was Rodolfo or Ilincai is impossible to say, but it certainly showed Rodolfo as something more than the typical volcanic Italian lover.
As the simple hearted (and simple minded) Mimi, Hibla Gerzmava sang beautifully and was suitably affecting without over-egging the pity pudding. It was, however, Inna Dukach’s portrayal of Musetta that stole the show. She earned mid-aria applause with a spell binding pianissimo in act 2, and even managed to inject some humanity into the usually shallow man-eater. Parpignol, Alcindoro and Benoit were all played with comic goofiness by Alan Duffield, Donald Maxwell and Jeremy White, respectively, giving another level to the performance.
A revival of a bog-standard production never sets the pulse rocketing, and John Copley’s 35 year old presentation is decidedly drab. Ugly sets and grim costumes tugged like an anchor at this cherished opera, and there was little relief until the mist and snow of act 3 briefly distracted from the torpor. There was a suggestion of eccentric sparkle from Andris Nelsons’ conducting in Act 1 when he had the orchestra engage with piquant rhythms and textures, but this was only a glimmer of originality that never returned, nor threatened to distract from the drama.
What is the drama? A couple fall in love, have a tiff and then one of them dies. Early critics were shocked that Puccini could set such a lowly domestic subject as high art and pronounced it a certified failure. The triviality of the setting isn’t the problem; the real outrage is the triviality of the characters themselves. Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi at first sight, but never discovers anything about her internal life; never wants to. There is no intelligent curiosity in his character, just a hazy, passive lust. Mimi, Marcello and Musetta are all, in this way, the same.
Tepid production and vapid characters aside the performance did pass the “tears test”, as my soaking wet cheeks attested at the end of the evening.