La Bohème: Your hand is cold

The Munich Opera Festival part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s season rolled on with a shot at what is known in these parts as a Sternstunde–famous names being providing luxury singing to gratify your pleasure principle. But for this to work you need more than glamorous singing, there has to be a real connection among the cast and with the audience too. That wasn’t happening so much last night. Angela Gheorghiu and Joseph Calleja are a beautiful match in terms of pure sound, and both have the voices for these roles. But theatrically they are a disaster, encouraging each other’s worst qualities. Gheorghiu only loves Gheorghiu, and I saw few convincing signs of Calleja loving anything at all.
I remain an enormous fan of Gheorghiu’s sound, which has a uniquely beautiful silvery smokiness and sounds perfect in this music. Would that we could hear more of it. When she finally sung out in Act 3, it was glorious, but up to then she had maintained her characteristic 75%–never quite inaudible but not loud enough either. Her self-conscious diva persona would never work so well for Mimi, but she was at her most self-absorbed this evening, reacting only for her own and our benefit and never interacting with the cast around her. She apparently got some new dresses for this production, which seemed to be of the upper middle class rather than of a simple seamstress (which sticks out because the costumes of the rest of the cast are actually fairly faithful to class), but also followed her usual preference of displaying maximum cleavage during her death scene.

Joseph Calleja also has a beautiful sound, and sang the music with much more straightforward musicality than Gheorghiu, who tends to be capricious in regards to phrasing. On a CD, his “Che gelida manina” would be a real winner, with easy high notes, smooth legato, and that golden tone with its distinctive fast vibrato. But he never does anything to make it interesting. He did more to engage with his fellow Bohemians, but his acting remains a series of indications rather than a character, and in terms of chemistry he and Gheorghiu are not so happening.

The supporting cast was mostly drawn from house locals and sounded more Eastern European in style than Italian, but were great company and way more fun than our leads. I wondered if light soubrette Laura Tatulescu had been cast as Musetta as to present minimal competition to Gheorghiu (and their timbres do make a good vocal match–they’re both Romanian, if that means anything), but while her voice is small she projected consistently and effortlessly, and managed to be full of character without overacting, a rare thing in Musettas. The pick of the Bohemians was Levente Molnár’s big-voiced, lively Marcello, showing great life and warmth, but the others were fine as well. Alfred Kühn’s bio has the telling debut date of 1963, and I suspect he has been singing repertoire like Benoit the whole while. I will just say that he is a local favorite and at least he wasn’t cast as Mime.
Dan Ettinger conducted like someone who knows his way around this tricky score, managing the remarkable tasks of rarely covering up Gheorghiu and also staying with her wayward beat. The Act 2 chaos was reasonably clean and if the orchestra was, as I suspect, playing this on little to no rehearsal, I am very impressed. Ensembles were oddly balanced and scrappy but hey, this is the Festival, with Angela Gheorghiu.
Otto Schenk’s production is a traditional job with none of the opulence of the Met’s Zeffirelli extravaganza. I have to say I like it a lot more than that one. Like Ettinger, it doesn’t try anything fancy but it puts things where they need to be to give Angela Gheorghiu something to bounce her voice off. (We’ll leave the actual productions for another day.) Act 2 is busy without ever losing track of the protagonists, the garret could arguably use some sprucing up (how long has this production been going? a while, I’m guessing) but I guess looking like that is the point of a garret. The snow scene is the most artistic of the sets, but still doesn’t dwarf the main characters. The opening of Act 4 was unusually clearly directed. I do wish that opera houses would realize that their rubber fishes are all embarrassments, though.
Admittedly, this has never been one of my favorite operas (I’m not exactly sure why), but this one left me exceptionally dry-eyed. Considering the musical merits, a disappointment. In a few weeks I’ll be seeing the new Salzburg production with Netrebko and Beczala, which I hope will have more to offer.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

Puccini, La Bohème. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7.17.2012.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Otto Schenk
Bühne und Kostüme Rudolf Heinrich
Chor Stellario Fagone

Mimi Angela Gheorghiu
Musetta Laura Tatulescu
Rodolfo Joseph Calleja
Marcello Levente Molnár
Schaunard Christian Rieger
Colline Goran Jurić 
Parpignol Dean Power
Benoît Alfred Kuhn
Alcindoro Tareq Nazmi
Ein Zöllner Tim Kuypers
Sergeant der Zollwache Peter Mazalán

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  1. The Munich Opera Festival part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s season rolled on with a shot at what is known in these parts as a Sternstunde–famous names being providing luxury singing to gratify your pleasure principle

    I think this is a general misconception about the arts.

    Ultimately, music and opera are about pleasure. If you choose to hear an opera, it's because you want a particular experience that that piece provides. The result of that experience will, however indirectly, bring you pleasure, or you wouldn't choose it.

    As for those who say: "Well what about harrowing works like Zimmerman's Die Soldaten, that's not entertainment!"… are are also missing the point.

    Any music that provides you with experiences that you're glad to have can be said to be about pleasure, however harrowing, challenging, innovative, retrospective, alienating, or welcoming the music itself might (seem to) be.

  2. I do not agree that art is ultimately about providing pleasure. That's a horribly limiting view. Art can speak to many sides of humanity besides our love for beautiful things.

    But I don't deny that pleasure is an important element. The problem with this performance, as I was trying to explain above, is that it didn't provide enough pleasure due to an essential lack of generosity on the part of the performers.