Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: La Bohème

Ermonela Jaho & Michael Fabiano Shine in Richard Jones’ Unnecessary Modern Take

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

There is no better title to end a year with than Puccini’s lively story of friendship, love and sickness. “La Bohème” is always an audience favorite and Teatro Real, which for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic had no social distancing measures and could sell all the seats in its theatre, sold out almost all of the 15 performances planned between the 12th of December and the 4th of January.

A Classic Story with Unconventional Staging

This was a revival of Richard Jones’ production, collaborating with The Royal Opera House and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was first seen in Madrid in 2017. Jones tries to introduce a modern aesthetic, utilizing the motif of a theatre within a theatre—having the stage crews visibly moving around the isolated, white pieces of the set—but still uses period costumes and realistic staging. There are a few operas that do not deal well with changes of conception or abstractions, and “La Bohème” is one of them. Clearly set in Paris during the 1850s in the Latin Quarter, the verismo libretto works perfectly. Every attempt at giving second readings or playing a parallel dramaturgy only damages the perfect narrative and Puccini’s inspired music.

Small, claustrophobic sets, like the galleries of the Latin Quarter, are balanced on the edge of the stage, and are moved in an assortment of disarticulated pieces: the mechanisms of stagecraft made evident and injected into the narrative. The set of Momus Café is minimalist on an otherwise bare stage where the audience can see the actual walls of the stage’s perimeter and the iron towers supporting the lights. Jones and set designer, Stewart Laing, have unfortunately tried to be modern. The bohemians’ attic is so small and full of inclined beams that you can see the singers are uncomfortably aware of the closeness, and taking pains to not be hit on the head as they move around the attic in Acts one and four. The street galleries set of Act two is placed so close to the edge of the stage that you have the impression that the soloists or members of the chorus may fall into the orchestra pit at any moment.

It is evident that Jones and Laing want to express the poverty of the characters by depicting them as living in such crowded, narrow spaces, but the result is clearly uncomfortable for the audience. Just when you have accepted that it’s all a theatrical trick and that the stage crew are walking freely on stage during the performance to move the sets—a gimmick done profusely during the last couple decades, by the way—in Act three the entire “Café” and the bonfire “magically” move on their own as the singers finish the last bars of the act. The result is absurd, even comical, as it undermines the visual narrative of the “theatre within a theatre” which has been maintained until now, and detracts from a major dramatic musical moment.

Jones decides to have the four artists enter in Act four to paint the white walls and beams of the attic during the dance and battle scene, creating a sense of complete detachment between the action and the music/libretto. As the artists sing of performing certain actions they are physically doing something completely different, which takes an originally endearing and amusing scene and renders it unintelligible. Where once four friends imitated several dance styles and performed a mock battle with swords, they now slather the set in graffiti: an all-too familiar case of modern dramaturgy completely ignoring the libretto.

There are numerous stage directing mistakes that proved how little thought was invested in the staging. There is an iron stove with a chimney pipe in the front part of the attic set. Once Schaunard brings in firewood and the bohemians finally light the fire, the pipe would presumably get extremely hot: yet all the soloists grab it and hold it continuously throughout the rest of the act, shattering the illusion of the fire being a source of warmth.

In Act three after Marcello throws Musetta’s fur coat into the snow, the singer playing Musetta simply picks it back up again with indifference, when surely the instinctual reaction would be to shake it and dry it off as soon as possible. Musetta enters in Act Four to tell the men that Mimi is terribly ill downstairs and that she needs help to bring her up, but Jones has Musetta enter a bit early so we can see, from her point of view, the bohemians painting the walls. If Musetta had the urgency (which Mimi’s deadly situation and the libretto implies), she would not stop to watch the painting, but interrupt their work immediately.

These are only a few examples, and although they might be seen like little more than technicalities and most of them things not consciously registered by the audience, these are the details which separate a believable, compelling staging from a production that does not work.

To make matters worse, Jones’ production replaced the great epic productions of John Copley and Giancarlo del Monaco at the Royal Opera House and Teatro Real respectively, evoking in this critic a sense of nostalgia and longing for the great productions in the face of something so poor and small.


No Competition

It is no secret that Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is one of the best singers/actresses currently active. She had already debuted at Teatro Real her signature roles of Violetta and Butterfly with immense success, and the frail, infatuated bohemian Mimi turned out to be another of her great roles. She enters in Act one, in spite of initially fainting, flirtatious and lively. There are signs of her sickness already: the suffocated breath and shaking hands, but Jaho does not overload the dramatic signs of Mimi’s sickness. She presents a sympathetic, lovely young girl. She sang her aria “Si, mi chiamano Mimi with joy, navigating easily through Puccini’s long, expansive lines and emitting a beautiful high A pianisimi on “di primavera.” She was triumphantly passionate in the final Act one duet “O soave fanciulla,” singing a perfect long sustained high C offstage. She maintained this sense of youth, life and love throughout the second act, where Mini is relegated to a few spare lines.

It was in Act three where Jaho revealed her dramatic powers. The scene with Marcello was breathtaking as she expressed the pain of the difficult romantic situation she is experiencing with Rodolfo, with strong high B flats in “il mio Rodolfo.” The interpretation of her aria “Donde lieta usci was extremely moving, and the soprano delivered a study in emotional constraint rather than overacting the drama.

By the time the audience reached Act four all could confidently conclude that the soprano had no competitors and was the star of the show. Her portrayal of the deathly ill young woman is, simply put, incredibly moving and believable. Jaho’s hands shake terribly when she expresses that she feels cold, and this was the first time that I have actually seen a soprano physically shaking from cold in that scene. Jaho gives herself up herself completely to the scene, to the point that you forget she is singing, as she colors her voice to reinforce the illusion of her death. Jaho succeeded once again with her characterization of a doomed heroine, with her clever way of building the drama and the sickness rather than playing the obvious from the very beginning.

Jaho made you cry at the end because she made you laugh during the first two acts.

Triumphant Cast

Rodolfo is a signature role of American tenor Michael Fabiano. He has sung this role since the beginning of his career and has given more than 175 performances of it. He is no stranger to the production either, as he was in the cast when this production opened in London in 2017 and performed in the Chicago revival  in 2018. It is an incredible pleasure when you see an artist so secure and comfortable on stage, transmitting this sense of easiness into the fluidity of the singing and the truth of the acting. Rodolfo is a truly lyrical role, with a high tessitura navigating constantly around the high A natural and with constant ascensions to B flats. Fabiano showed his total control of Puccini’s score by singing effortlessly with his voluminous, rich sound which carries easily over the incredibly loud sound of Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra.

Fabiano’s interpretation of the famous “Che gelida manina” was ardent and passionate, culminating with a strong projected high B natural in “la Speranza” (he sang the aria transposed down a semitone). He proved his control in the upper register when he sang the high C offstage, alongside Jaho, at the end of “O soave fanciulla,” or the B natural at the end of the ensemble reprise of Musetta’s waltz in Act two. Act three was clearly the highlight of his performance, where his squillo and beautiful timbre turned lines like “Invan, invan  nascondo”  and “di sangue ha rosse into believable dramatic outbursts. Although the tenor has expressed his preference for Verdi compositions, it seems as if Puccini had written Rodolfo’s role for his voice alone.

Fabiano showed his beautiful and delicate mezza voce by singing the lines “rimavo con carezze!” and “alla stagion dei forwith sweetness and softness. He kept his voice fresh and flexible for the duet “Oh, Mimi piu non torni in Act four, where the tenor’s phrasing rises to a high A natural in long legato lines.

Fabiano’s incarnation of Rodolfo was joyful, youthful, energetic, amorous and bright, as well as dramatic in Acts Three and Four. It really is a pleasure when you see a singer play and enjoy a role so much: it makes you forget the technical difficulties of the singing. Fabiano had tremendous onstage chemistry with his colleagues Jaho and Meachem, making their scenes together realistic and incredibly moving.

The lirico-leggera Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta played Musetta. She had no trouble with the tessitura of this short role and sang her famous waltz “Quando m’en vo” effortlessly and amusingly. She had pitch problems in the diminuendo of the final B natural of the aria, however, as her voice has a marked vibrato which increases as she diminishes the volume, making her intonations questionable. Her exaggerated and hyper-gestural way of acting suited Jones’ idea of a perpetually drunk Musetta, even though her overemphasis on the spoken line “che la fanno da ah! ah! ah! mariti momentarily broke the dramatism of the quartet at the end of Act three.

American baritone Lucas Meachem portrayed the painter Marcello. Puccini never wrote musically important roles for baritones, leaving them with neither solos nor significant arias. But they always play an essential part in the plot and usually sing duets with the sopranos and tenors. Meachem showed his voluminous, dark voice all night. His voice melts perfectly with Fabiano’s instrument and his acting was energetic, on par with his colleagues, and very emotional.

Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk and Spanish baritone Joan Martín-Arroyo played the supporting roles of Colline and Schaunard respectively. Baczyk delivered a moving interpretation of his short aria “vecchia zimarra” with sustained mezza voce and legato lines.

Thunderous Orchestration

Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, who is a regular of the Teatro Real’s operatic seasons, offered a vibrant sparkling study of Puccini’s work, paying attention to dynamics and timbrical color for creating atmospheres; especially noted at the beginning of Act three. He has a tendency, however, to favor the orchestral sound to emphasize the drama on the crescendos, at the expense of the voice of the singers who are drowned out in these moments; this was most notable with Mimi’s Act Three passages. Only well-projected voices with full, rich harmonics, like Fabiano’s, can surpass the dense curtain of orchestral sound which Luisotti builds. In moments like the climactic end of the Cafe Momu’s scene, when Fabiano goes up to an interpolated high B natural, his voice is heard clearly over the other soloists and orchestra, while it is difficult to distinguish the same high note in either soprano.

Ultimately, a young cast of dramatic, committed singers delivered powerful, moving performances in a production that tries to innovate but ultimately appears tedious and minimalistic, under the baton of the ever-energetic Luisotti, who should measure and level the orchestral sound during the forte moments so that the shining cast of singers can be heard at their very best.


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