Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: La Bohème (Alternative Cast Performances)

Ailyn Perez Mesmerizes as Mimì in Madrid’s Production

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

The Teatro Real succumbed to the latest wave of infections of the new Omicron variant, with COVID once again causing cancellations of opera performances across Europe. But Teatro Real remained determined not to cancel performances and (despite some controversy on how many people were infected) pushed forward to keep the theatre open for the sold-out performances of this beloved Puccini title.

The number of artists infected by Covid affected the Dec. 29, 2022, performance when cast A had to be substituted completely by the B cast, making the B cast sing two consecutive performances.

The COVID infections spread and the Jan. 2 performance had to be canceled while a new alternative cast of singers was rehearsing to maintain the last two performances of “Bohème.” This is an incredible and unusual measure to take, as it is difficult to gather four new soloists on such short notice. And it is very demanding for the artists to learn the staging on a single day.

Jan. 3, 2022 Season Opener: Ailyn Perez Interprets a Mimì to Remember

The Teatro Real raised its curtain on its season opener with Ailyn Perez in the lead role of Mimì, Francesco Demuro as Rodolfo, Javier Franco as Marcello, and Gabriel Bermúdez as Schaunard. Raquel Lojendio and Soloman Howard from the original cast B performed the roles of Musetta and Colline.

Ailyn Perez was an incredibly emotional Mimì with impeccable style and good singing. Perez’s is a pure lyrical voice with a dark velvet timbre, a strong middle register, secure round high notes, and an astonishing ability to dimuendi to ethereal pianissimi.

Perez is no stranger to Mimì, having sung the role at Cincinnati and the Met, and it has become one of her signature roles. The soprano offered a vital, young, and amorous incarnation of the character. She maintained, throughout the performance, the effects of Tuberculosis from which the character suffers—even when not marked in the libretto or the original staging.

For example, on her first lyrical aria “Si. Mi chiamano Mimì” she sang the long legato lines, expansive melody, and ethereal A naturals in pianissimi, providing it with a sense of “lack of air” which characterizes this illness.

But despite this believable, realistic portrayal of the sick Mimì, what made Perez’s performance astounding and special was her portrayal of a young, radiant, infatuated girl. She did not overact the drama of her scene with Marcello and she sang her aria “ Donde lieta usci” with a measured emotion of worry and sadness present in a lover’s quarrel. Perez’s voice carries brilliantly over the dense forte orchestration in Act three. During the third act aria and her final death scene in Act four, she kept her eyes bright but wore a homesick smile. There are moments where, despite the sadness of the moment, Mimì remembers her good times with Rodolfo, and this made her performance more dramatic and emotional rather than the usual tragic attitude.

Perez’s Mimì died smiling, surrounded by all the people she loved. She sang the B flat of “e tutta la mia vita” in a soaring sweet pianissimo during the Jan. 3 performance, but delivered an amazing crescendo the following night. She showed how she adapts her singing for different performances, playing with emotions at the moment she is singing, which might differ from one day to another, as was the case when performing with a different tenor in the role of Rodolfo.

It is commendable that she kept her voice fresh, and showed commitment in both performances, giving all she had and not saving her voice for the first performance, knowing she had to sing again the next night.

Rodolfo and Marcello Have a Difficult Night

Francesco Demuro, who portrayed the poet Rodolfo, is an example of how good high notes do not support an entire night of Puccini singing. Rodolfo has a high tessitura, going constantly to A naturals and B flats, and mostly in long expanded phrases rather than climactic high notes. Demuro showed no problem with the tessitura, demonstrating his easiness in the high register with two perfectly sustained high C’s in “Che gelida manina” and at the end of “O soave fanciulla.”

Unfortunately, Demuro’s timbre was off and he lacked projection, turning his sound disagreeable when singing above the passagio, and his voice was inaudible during ensemble and chorus numbers. Demuro avoided dynamics, singing mostly forte as his efforts to sing mezza voce or piano, like in the line: “alla stagion dei for” written piano on the score, proved to be unsuccessful as his sound became unstable, switching to a weak falsetto for the A flat. Demuro’s lirico-leggero voice lacks the drama and strength that Rodolfo needs for his emotional outburst in Act three, during his duet with Marcello and subsequent scene with Mimì. Overall, he gave a playful and lively interpretation of the young poet that was full of energy and determination.

The Spanish baritone Javier Franco delivered a disappointing performance of the bohemian painter, Marcello. He has a lyrical voice that is modest in volume and lacks projection, but this melded well with Demuro during the first performance. Yet, his voice disappeared when singing alongside American tenor Michael Fabiano for the second show. Franco’s voice sounded muffled and tired when singing above the stave, with a slow vibrato that turned his pitch dubious, especially when singing E’s, F’s, and F sharps in forte. Marcello is a role whose tessitura navigates constantly around E’s and F’s. While his colleagues showed engagement and conviction in the acting, the added difficulty of having just one stage rehearsal showed.

Supporting Cast Shines

Spanish soprano Raquel Lojendio, who came from the run’s original B cast, reprised the role of Musetta for the last two shows of the Teatro Real’s “Bohème.” Lojendio’s voice is lyrical, with a dark timbre and ringing sustained high notes, giving strength and vocal power to a role usually performed by leggero soprano voices. She delivered a sentimental interpretation of Musetta’s famous waltz aria: “Quando m’en vó,” showing her ability for long legato phrasing and effortlessly emitted high B naturals. Lojendio’s portrayal of the drunk, capricious young woman was persuasive and energetic, and dramatic and profound in the fourth act.

In the role of Schaunard, Gabriel Bermúdez also stepped in at very short notice to sing the two last performances. During the performance, he showed off his beautiful lyrical instrument and immaculate phrasing. The American bass Soloman Howard, an original member of the B cast, sang Colline for the Jan. 3 show. Howard has a powerful dark instrument that, within time, could move him into the basso profondo range. He showed his solid technique, breath control, and skill at long legato singing in his arietta “Vecchia zimarra,” which he sang with an exquisite mezza voce—something really hard for a big low voice—and profound sentiment.

On the Podium

Spanish conductor Luis Miguel Mendez was originally scheduled to conduct the Jan. 3 performance but stepped in for the last performance on Jan 4. He gets all the timbrical richness of Puccini’s score from the orchestra in the first and second acts while creating dramatic tension during the sorrowful and fateful moments of Acts three and four. Above all, he found a perfect balance between the singers and the orchestra, playing in forte, and making all the voices audible all the time without losing the effect of Puccini’s climactic drama.

La Bohème, Jan. 4, 2022

The final performance of “Bohème” at the Teatro Real featured Michael Fabiano and Krzystof Baczyk, members of the original cast A. The two returned to their Rodolfo and Colline, respectively, while the rest of the soloists reprised their roles from the previous night. This last show was a magical performance full of unforgettable moments.

Fabiano and Perez Shine in Final Show

Fabiano recovered from COVID without a trace of the virus impinging on his voice. His instrument produced an exquisite mezza voce, with ringing top notes that reached a high C. But what made this performance special was the amazing chemistry between Perez and Fabiano. They have sung together many times, including several productions of “Bohème,” and it really shows. The way they looked and held each other, along with how their voices melded, was authentic, sincere, and deeply emotive. These qualities made the audience forget they were attending a theatre performance and pulled them into the love story of two young bohemians.

There were moments when the couple sang together so beautifully that the audience remained utterly silent as if no one was even breathing. Fabiano and Perez’s energy flowed into the rest of the cast, creating a unique and emotionally charged fourth act, during which their performance visibly moved the audience and the artists.


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