Royal Opera House Muscat 2023-24 Review: La Bohème

Jean-Louis Grinda’s Unsentimental Production Cuts Away the Emotional Froth

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Khalid Al-Busaidi)

On October 14th, 2011, the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) opened its doors for its inaugural season with a production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” with the aim of establishing itself as a “centre of excellence in global cultural engagement.” It is a noble and ambitious aim, for sure, but for a country without a tradition of opera, it is certainly not going to be an easy task. How, for example, will it be able to educate the population about the operatic canon, its performance codes and traditions, and the art of opera singing by serving up only the popular operas such as “Carmen,” “La Traviata” and “Le Nozze di Figaro” while at the same time being seen as a leading cultural establishment? Move too far away from such titles, and the risk is that the local population will become alienated, leaving the opera house as a centre for tourists and expats from Europe and America.

The Director General and Artistic Director of ROHM, Umberto Fanni, however, is clearly aware of such possibilities and possesses a clear vision on how to fashion a way forward. Each season, he introduces one or two carefully chosen lesser-known works, such as Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Rossini’s “La Scala di Seta” and Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” in order to broaden the audience’s experience and create a more balanced and interesting program. It is, nevertheless, the usual favorites that form the company’s mainstay, and he is keen to bring in the best directors, singers and conductors to ensure that performances are of high quality. This, indeed, was the case with the recent revival of its production of “La Bohème,” which was originally premiered in 2019.

Grinda Plays Down the Sentimental

Its director, Jean-Louis Grinda, created a sensitive reading that did its best to eschew the sentimental overtones that one often finds in many productions of Puccini operas. For sure, there was plenty of bon homie amongst the bohemians; they treated the privations of poverty with a casual, devil-may-care attitude, and they rolled with the freedom of having few responsibilities, dancing and singing the night away. However, his development of the characters played up other sides of their natures so that they became layered personalities, which moved beyond the sentimental. In particular, his Mimì was no passive shrinking violet; she actively sought opportunities and was therefore a less sympathetic character than is often portrayed, which successfully removed the overly sweet taste that the opera can often leave. Similarly, Marcello’s assertive character was given a slightly unpleasant, aggressive edge, which added a realism to the relationships between the bohemians that one rarely finds, and the suggestion that Marcello and Mimì were flirting with each other at Café Momus gave greater substance to Rodolfo’s jealousy.

The sets, designed by Rudy Sabounghi, were traditional in nature, depicting scenes that could only refer to Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The bohemians’ garret, the scene of the first and forth acts, was an impoverished, airy attic space with large windows that opened onto a Parisian skyline, which successfully drew on the stereotype to define bohemians’ economic, social and artistic conditions. Act two, which takes place in front of the Café Momus, was a riotous setting of color, movement and merriment and captured the atmosphere of Paris by night with its old-fashioned neon signs advertising cabarets and music halls. The scenery for Act three, set at a toll gate, conjured up a nondescript, fairly bleak, rundown area with a bar to one side. It felt cold, lonely and inhospitable and brilliantly supported the drama as Rodolfo vainly tries to justify his treatment of Mimì, whom we discover is dying of tuberculosis.

The costumes, designed by David Belugou, were in line with expectations for Paris during the period. Generally dull and uninspiring, they reflected the economic position of the characters. The one exception was Musetta, who wore an interesting array of colorful, fashionable dresses, hinting at the possible source of her income.

Together, costumes and sets successfully created a vision of the free-spirited world inhabited by the artists, which Grinda used successfully to support the narrative, develop atmosphere and intensify and relax the dramatic tensions. He also added small, interesting details. Between acts three and four, for example, he introduced a short video of an out-of-focus street in which we watched the passing of the seasons to a recording of music from the opera on a piano. It was a nice touch that covered for the awkward set change. It also emphasized the passing of time; spring had now come and gone, and Mimì had, therefore, now left Rodolfo.

Sini Successfully Captures the Drama & Beauty of the Score

The musical side of the production was under the direction of Leonardo Sini, who elicited a very impressive reading from the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana. Driving the music forward with clarity and rhythmic energy, he ensured each act was sensitively developed to maintain a cohesive arc while successfully shaping it to highlight the significant dramatic points without compromising the warmth of its rich melodic fabric. He successfully managed the musical tensions, which were synchronized beautifully to the on-stage drama, and Puccini’s signature crescendi were given the necessary space to bloom in order to maximize their emotional impact. His overall attention to detail and the dramatic effect ensured the performance was both engrossing and aesthetically pleasing.

A Standout Performance from Sicilia

Although the standard of singing was strong throughout, it was the two female singers that shone most brightly. Soprano Mariangela Sicilia, essaying the role of Mimi, produced a nuanced portrait that played down any ideas of sweetness and passivity and helped raise her character above the sentimental. She was energetic and strong-willed. Her initial meeting with Rodolfo came across as opportunistic rather than fortuitous, and her subsequent flirtatious relationship with Marcello did little to change. By highlighting this side of her character, Mimi came across as more rounded and, in many ways, more sympathetic, one that was not coated in a sugary veneer, which can often happen.

It was a reading that she also brought to her vocal interpretation, in which she downplayed the overly sweet-sounding lines without, however, compromising their beauty. In her meeting with Rodolfo in Act three, she brilliantly captured competing aspects of her personality, inflecting her lines with emotional nuance as she struggles with her tuberculosis and complex feelings for Rodolfo, while in her final scene, her singing was so poignant and riven with expressions of pain and frailty that her death could not but have failed to leave anyone watching without feelings of deep sadness. The contrast with Act one, in which her voice positively sparkled, brilliantly magnified the effect of Mimì’s decline.

More Cast Highlights

Liparit Avetisyan is a tenor with a very attractive, warm timbre, which gives his singing an almost naturally romantic gloss, which he can easily transform into passionate intensity. He is, therefore, almost ready-made for the role of Rodolfo, and did indeed produce an effective performance, exemplified by his rendition of the aria “Che gelida manina,” which neatly caught his character’s romantic intentions. It is also a sweet voice, which can add to its romantic quality, however if not carefully managed, can leave an impression of superficiality or sentimentality, and there was an element of this in his interpretation. At times, everything was a little too easy and too smooth to fully convince. This was most noticeable in the duets with Sicilia, whose expressivity and nuanced characterization exposed Avetisyan’s less refined approach. Albeit to a lesser degree, the same could also be said of his acting, which was overly reliant on stock gestures. Overall, however, it was a good performance, but one based more on vocal beauty than characterization and dramatic impact.

Mezzo-soprano Hasmik Torosyan was a convincingly assertive, feisty yet fun-loving Musetta. Such was her success in playing up the role of a streetwise woman, hardened to life’s adversities, who delighted in taking advantage of gullible people, that the contrast she displayed towards Mimi as she lay dying came across as a genuinely powerful expression of grief, brilliantly uncovering the deep humanity that exists behind her façade. It was the quality of Torosyan’s singing, however, that really impressed. She possesses a fine voice with wonderful coloring and flexibility and an excellent technique, which allowed her to capture the full sweep of the melodic line, brilliantly exemplified in the showpiece aria “Quando m’en vo.” Standing on top of a table to entertain the crowd outside the Café Momus, she confidently embraced the famous melody, imbuing it with a seductive beauty and subtle inflections, and captured Musetta’s spirited nature as she climbed seamlessly into her upper register and allowed her voice to bloom with an air of unrestrained freedom. It was no wonder Marcello was unable to resist her after such a performance.

Marcello was given a strongly defined character by baritone Semyon Antakov, so much so that when on stage, he tended to dominate, although not always to the benefit of the drama. Nevertheless, his presence provided the group of bohemians with a greater sense of camaraderie by promoting its cohesion and hidden tensions. He was assertive, energetic and aggressive, which was reflected in his singing. He possesses a resonant, colorful voice, which he used successfully to deliver his lines with conviction and clarity.

Bass Riccardo Zanellato produced an attractive and sympathetic portrait of Colline, who came across as playful, caring and compassionate. His warm timbre, carefully moulded phrasing and clarity of expression created an excellent impression.

The young baritone Daniele Terenzi, who essayed the role of Schaunard, made the most of his opportunity with a pleasing performance that allowed him to show off his vocal qualities. His singing was confident, resonant, clear and articulate, and his presentation of his character was neatly defined.

Bass-baritone Matteo Peirone played the roles of Benoit, the landlord, and Alcindoro, Musetta’s escort. He gave excellent performances in both parts, in which he played up their comedy potential to the maximum. It was great to watch, as after being taken advantage of by Musetta, the old dandy just moved on to find another girl and threw a handful of money into the crowd. He knew the game!

The Symphonic Choir of Parma and Emilia Romagna produced an enthusiastic, energetic and colorful performance as carnival performers, onlookers and army in Act two.

Personally, I am always a bit wary of Puccini. His operas, including “La Bohème,” have the potential to step over the line that turns a great work of art into a sentimental second-rater. In fact, I tend to shy away from attending performances of his operas. This presentation by the ROHM, however, has reignited my interest. There was a sense of realism, of the brutality of life and of the deep, deep pain it can cause. It stepped away from the emotional froth and cut directly to the suffering. The dancing, the bravado and the cavorting of the bohemians were just the veneer that we all indulge in to hide from the pain of our existence. It did not cross the line and, therefore, never fell into the emotional slush of a Hollywood movie.


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