What goes into a really excellent production of Giacomo Puccini’s masterwork, La bohème? There’s the glorious, glorious music, its gorgeous melodies and sumptuous orchestration. Energy. Urgency. Passion. Hopes. Dreams. Life brimming over. Love that comes in the blink of an eye, flares up gloriously, dies, and is remembered for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, those were the very qualities that were missing in Lyric’s production of La bohème we saw last night. The music was there, of course. Puccini furnished that for the opera back in 1895. I didn’t think that what we saw last night had a great deal of energy or passion.
We’ve heard La bohème probably ten times over the last 20 some-odd years at Lyric and generally in this very same production. I know that La bohème is frequently a “thrown-in” opera, an opera used to fill out the schedule. Why must it convey the impression that it’s just been used to fill out the schedule?
Serena Farnocchia sang Mimi. Her Mimi was not a frail, delicate flower—vocally she’s darker and stronger than many Mimis. She sang the role with great authority and virtuosity. Was it really Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo as our program said? If so, he’s a dead ringer for Roberto Aronica. When we initially heard him in the first act I was rather surprised. His vocal quality was somewhat harsher and nasal in quality than one usually hears in a lead tenor—more what one is accustomed to in a character tenor. As the act and the opera progressed I warmed to his treatment of the part. He negotiated his high notes extremely well. A tenor’s high notes should be thrilling but not nerve-wracking as is too often the case at Lyric. Last night’s Rodolfo’s high notes were not nerve-wracking.
Indeed, there were lots of good things happening vocally on the stage which were all too frequently drowned out by an overbearing orchestra.
Could someone please tell Sir Andrew Davis that, if we wanted to hear a symphony, we’d go to Michigan Avenue. In opera voices and instruments should construct a seamless artistic whole. It’s not vocalists vs. orchestra. If you attend Lyric Opera, please write and tell them to, for goodness sake, hold back the orchestra. I plan to do so.
I found Renata Scotto’s stage direction spotty. On the positive side I thought that last night’s Act III was probably the best staging of that act I’ve ever seen at Lyric. I’ve always loved the sets for that particular act but the act has routinely been incredibly tedious. That wasn’t the case last night.
But on the negative side I thought that the Act II Cafe Momus scene was murky. It was frequently difficult to determine what was going on, the Parpignol vignette was phlegmatic, and the Bohemians on stage left were too frequently merely there, apparently waiting for their next opportunity to sing.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that last night’s performance was a bad one. It wasn’t. It was, well, workmanlike. But it could have been much, much better.
Once again John von Rhein saw this Bohème much as I did:
Although there is nothing seriously amiss in the current cast, there is little to lift this “Boheme”— directed by Renata Scotto — beyond routine competence.
Farnocchia is not ideally suited to playing delicate, demure heroines, while dowdy costuming (along with nerves?) also conspired to rob Mimi’s early scenes of charm. The singer later used her appealingly dark timbre and warmly idiomatic phrasing to advantage in Mimi’s duet with the painter Marcello (baritone Quinn Kelsey), in which she recounted how Rodolfo’s baseless jealousy had driven a wedge into their relationship. Mimi’s sentimental deathbed reminiscences also touched the listener in a way one wished more of her singing had done earlier in the opera.
At least Farnocchia has Italianate temperament — she just needs to let it out more. Hughes Jones is British to the core, with a nasal, pleasantly reedy tenor but also a dramatic placidity that ran counter to Rodolfo’s passionate nature and was at least partly responsible for the central characters failing to project the requisite romantic chemistry in their scenes.
Like Farnocchia’s singing, that of Hughes Jones was perfectly tasteful. One wants more than that from a Rodolfo in a major-theater “Boheme.”
while the Sun-Times’s Wynne Delacoma was more favorably impressed:
Farnocchia’s soprano is strong and clear, but she managed to convey the exhaustion of body and spirit that makes Mimi’s plight so moving. Jones is a tall, strapping figure, with a flexible voice to match. But even as he joked and romped with his bohemian pals, we felt the burden of poverty and an uncertain future weighing on Rodolfo’s broad shoulders.
Footnote: Puccini’s La bohème is based on Murger’s Scène de la vie de Bohème, an English translation of which can be found here. It was originally a series of independently-published sketches, later collected into a novel, still later reworked into a successful stage play. The sketches are significantly grittier and less sentimental than Puccini’s opera. It’s still worthy of your attention as a view into a world that while long gone continues to have resonance today.