Théâtre des Champs-Elysées 2022-23 Review: La Bohème

Pene Pati & Selene Zanett Shine in Sloppy Production

By João Marcos Copertino
(Credit: Vincent Pontet)

Making “La Bohème” in Paris is a strenuous task. After Claus Guth’s unpopular sideral production, it became evident that the City of Light’s operagoers are not eager to see overly conceptual approaches to Puccini’s opera.

However, no ambitious stage director will merely imitate one of the many Zeffirelli productions. This is why Theatre des Champs-Elysées brought out the big guns. They hired Eric Ruf and his conciliating and radical proposal to Puccini’s masterpiece. While he alludes to all the Zeffirellian productions, with the snow, the costumes and the children, he challenges the public by showing the limits of hyperrealism in the theater.

Better known in some circles as Cardinal Richelieu in the new “Three Musketeers” film, Eric Ruf is the program manager of one of the most prestigious repertory theater companies in the world, the Comédie-Française. Bringing Ruf to the operatic world is a nod both to those who crave a more conciliatory form of theatrical representation and those who can appreciate great dramatic erudition.

Ruf’s World

At Champs-Elysées, the bohemians wear costumes not unlike those of any Zefirelli production, but the scenarios are a blend between idyllic snow-globe Paris and metatheatre. Marcello is not painting Moses crossing the Red Sea, but the lost grand drape of Champs-Elysées. Surprise, surprise, it is red! In the final act, Mimì is dressed as a lame and mutilated version of that lost curtain. It is a theater simultaneously under construction and in ruins.

The singers act as operatically as possible. However, we, the audience are made to see how melodramatic acting, far from being mere tasteless affectation, can be extremely moving if performed with shameless seriousness. Overall, there is a sense of uncaptured beauty in Ruf’s “La Bohème.” The scenarios are beautiful, but not photographable. The acting is moving, but not well-suited to be filmed.

At the very end of the production, nevertheless, when Mimì is on the verge of death, I fear Ruf missed the opportunity to perfectly conduct that storm of emotion that is so necessary, especially if the audience is to be moved to tears. Although the final scene ends beautifully with a naked stage and the chorus mourning Mimì’s death, their entry is extremely late. This happened way after Rodolfo’s melodramatic sobbing of her name. Had they entered a bit earlier, let’s say when Mimì stopped breathing, it would better fit the opera’s avalanche of emotions.

Another mistake is the bad work of the costume and make-up department in covering the microphones. They were sometimes too visible, which is always disturbing, especially in opera. Microphones in opera are always objects of polemic, and I assume that they were there simply for sound capture. The opera will be available on and France Culture in September 2023. Nevertheless, it is not great to see them because it kills the buzz.

Great Command

Musically, the cast showed a great command of the melodramatic aspects of the opera. These elements were particularly present in the pianos, pianissimos, and in the decrescendos.

Selene Zanetti made her Mimì a most operatic incarnation of a lugubrious character. Her languidness is apparent from her first entry, when she appears disheveled and almost falling down. That she is fated to die does not hinder Zanetti from making Mimì a real character. It is very evident that she is not a creation of Rodolfo, and she does not particularly fit well as his “poetry.” Zanetti manages to control the narrative. Her voice has a rich vibrato and shines best when the singer explores the subtleties. Her decrescendos were extremely rich, alluding to the beauty in Mimi’s poetical passing.

Pene Pati has one of the most beautiful Italian tenor voices of his generation (I know he is not Italian, but Samoan). I particularly appreciated the wooden quality of his pianos in the upper register. He combines good Italian diction with a voice that sounds pure and embracing. His high notes took a while to achieve the same quality in the course of the night, while balancing from a sharp but nasal tone to a heart-warming shrillness. The beauty of his voice, which is a privilege to hear, is audible only in  live performances. His recordings, though very good, lose much of the colorful tonality audible in a live setting. Pati’s great musical sense does most of the work. He continues the long tradition of Italian tenors who are singers, not actors. But, L*rd can Pati sing! In some moments, especially in the third act, it seems that time stops so he can hold his phrase a bit longer.

Amina Edris made Musetta an intelligent woman. Refusing any temptation to present her merely as a luxurious woman, her Musetta convinces the audience that her actions are driven only by her own wishes and intentions. At the beginning of “Quando me’n vo’,” Edris shows, through her silence, that she already has control of what is going to happen. Musically, she seemed to have all of her part figured out, with much refinement at the end of her phrases. Nevertheless, her voice is a bit heavier than most Musettas nowadays, and even some Mimìs. There was a certain opaqueness in the high notes that strengthened the audience’s perception of how smart, and not merely witty, Musetta has to be to attract attention.

Alexandre Duhamel was, as usual, extremely correct as Marcello. He has a generous instrument and a good sense of musicality.  

Francesco Salvadori was very musical every time a sound came out of his mouth, especially in the first act. And Guilhem Worms overcame some inconsistencies in projection and focus by the time he sang “Vecchia Zimarra.”

The chorus was well-prepared, especially the children’s groups, which provided a scenic and vocal consistency that is always impressive to see. The Orchestra National de France, under the direction of Lorenzo Passerini, played well. Passerini gives a very energetic reading of Puccini’s score, stressing how strange, even experimental, some of its moments can sound. Some moments might have overwhelmed the singers  a bit, but they were compensated for by accurate playing by the harps and the strings.

Certainly, a “La Bohème” to see, Eric Ruf’s staging is neither radical nor gaudy, and it can lead the audience to great moments. However, what was most remarkable about the evening relied still on the most perennial aspects of Opera. The perishable unfolding of voices and instruments in a limited space of time.


ReviewsStage Reviews