La BohËme in Toulon, Marseille and Genoa

Well, why not? Why not make La BohËme about 1968! 1968 was a long
time ago, dim in memory but now that you mention it an exciting time to recall
— the vehement anti-Vietnam war protests in the U.S. were small in comparison
to Mai 1968, huge protests in Paris and around France against
authority (any and all), a premise wildly cheered by American and Italian
university students eager for any and all revolution, all this general
excitement notably prompted by the politically pointed 1968 Prague Spring.

Maybe May 1968 is a mantle that La BohËme does not wear very well.
But never mind, it was fun to revisit those exciting times even if the 2003
Nice Opera production by Daniel Benoin revived just now in Toulon was filled
with much imagery that was maybe recognizable only by the French, and by now
those French of a certain age (this seems to have been the case based on
overhearing intermission conversations). It did leave us Berkeley-ites of a
certain age mostly in the dark.

A bit of post-performance research into Mai 1968 explained that the
rubber face-masked, caricatured Maoists who marched in at the end of Act II
were deriding the French communists who joined the rightwing Gaullists to
condemn the strikes. Riot police were everywhere in Mai 1968 (DeGualle
had fled to Germany) thus they prefaced the third act by climbing onto the
stage to be in place before the curtain rose onto a mesh fence with a gate that
guarded some sort of internment compound and then inexplicably did not.

Mr. Benoin, director of the esteemed ThȂtre National de Nice since 2002,
is not a musical opera director, if he were musical he would know that you
better not mess around with La BohËme at all. He would know that
posters announcing the appearance of Country Joe and the Fish at the CafÈ
Momus would disqualify Puccini’s orchestra, that Musetta, a determined,
militant revolutionary, could not croon her waltz into a microphone to a mute
jazz trio accompaniment. He would know that if a corps de ballet did
happen by the CafÈ Momus it would not attempt to jive dance to Puccini’s
trumpet fanfares.

But make no mistake, Mr. Benoin is a savvy director (making one curious if a
little nervous about the Madame Butterfly he staged in Salerno [Italy]
in 2007). He used his Act III wire mesh fence to sublime effect, separating his
sets of lovers while allowing them to touch. His Act IV conceit was to clothe
his entire cast in pure white, Rodolfo draping the windows with white cloth at
the moment Mimi expired. All this packed a wallop.

If Daniel Benoin indulged himself in seemingly arbitrary forays into high
theatrical style Toulon Opera music director Giuliano Carella indulged Puccini
in some very powerful verismo that exactly magnified the opera’s
emotive intent to huge proportion, real and pure embodiment of the verismo
ideal of oversized sentiment. This an accomplishment rarely achieved on any
operatic stage. Well, once we got to Act III that is. Acts I and II were rocky,
evoking terrors that are usually dealt with at the dress rehearsal. And the
maestro simply could not drag the Toulon chorus into a festive melÈe at the
CafÈ Momus.

Finally La BohËme rests on the charm and voice of its bohemians,
and Toulon Opera did not let us down. The BohËme herself was Italian soubrette
Nuccia Focile whose mannered Italian endowed Mimi with more personality than we
may have wanted but whose voice rose to easy highs to insinuate a younger and
simpler idea of this heroine. Sympathetic Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski, easily
the audience favorite, drew his musical lines with more than usual ease
suggesting that Onegin’s Lenski is his innate character. Georgian
born French soprano Anna Kasyan brought good, tough character to this unusual
Musetta though she only sometimes seemed to have the requisite vocal heft.
Italian baritone Devid Cecconi was a gruff, lovable, bumbling Marcello aided by
countrymen Massimiliano Gagliardo and Roberto Tagliavini as the charming and
vocally adept Schaunard and Colline.

Trailer for Toulon production of La BohËme

Well, why not translocate La BohËme onto the rooftops of Paris,
maybe like a movie musical (Moulin Rouge for example)? These rooftops
rarely have people on them for good reason (they are steep) so the trick just
now in Marseille was finding a few flat places where bohemians could frolic and

Rooftops are just that so there was no way to sketch an artists’ garret, a
cafÈ or an entrance to the city, after all these places are easily imagined.
Maybe this lone rooftop location was a bow to the new austerity that has made
opera companies worldwide feel as penniless as Puccini’s bohemians.

La BohËme is indestructible, or nearly. The holiday season
BohËme at Marseille Opera toyed with that distinction. This Christmas
Eve bonbon (well, the first two acts) might have survived the rooftop concept
but it could not survive the attempt to turn Puccini’s thrusting emotions into
the measured, percolated, precious movements of spirit that mark a Britten or
Janacek opera. Like a driver willfully blocking the flow of traffic by driving
too slowly to prove how careful he is, Irish conductor Mark Shanahan thwarted
the very essence of verismo by rendering it into slow, almost frozen
musical motion. The cathartic moment of Puccini’s tearjerker in Marseille
finally was not a tear or two, it was pure and simple road rage at the

Were it not victim of the conducting this La BohËme probably would
have succumbed at the moment Musetta’s waltz became a 1950’s movie musical
production number, those Parisian rooftops disguised very symmetrical
platforming that allowed a garishly costumed Musetta, let us say clownishly, to
top a pyramid of snazzy CafÈ Momus waiters executing some snappy choreography.
Well, CafÈ Momus was already a crazed showbiz, dayglo colored adult playground
so why not.

It would be unfair to delve too deeply into the individual performances as
there was obvious dissension between pit and stage, and not just between the
singers and the conductor, also between stage management and conductor —
changes in the lighting seldom occurred at the appropriate musical moment.

Marseilles_Boheme.gifPromotional photo of Marseille production of La BohËme

Suffice to say that French soprano Nathalie Manfrino was a vocally and
physically attractive Mimi, though her ample sound was mismatched to Ricardo
Bernal as the young, handsome Rodolfo. This Mexican tenor’s appropriately
Italianate delivery was hampered by a voice more suited to the light lyric
roles. Marcello, Schaunard and Colline were undertaken by Marc Barrard, Igor
Gnidii and Nicolas Courjal respectively. All are accomplished in their roles
though none found the youthful charisma of their characters as had the Mimi and

The staging concept credited to Jean-Louis Pichon seems to have been to
transform Puccini’s sad little tale into a slick musical with one nifty crowd
scene, leaving the well known tunes elsewhere to fend for themselves as well
they might and usually do. Marseille’s remarkable opera house, unequaled
anywhere for its direct stage-audience rapport did respond from time to time to
the obtuse staging with some enjoyable stage pictures.

Well why not? Why not place Puccini’s sad, gritty little story in an
enchanted storybook world where fantastically dressed bohemians named Mimi,
Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline have identically fantastically dressed
child counterparts aged 5 to 9 who mirror their every move.

There was no message in Genoa just now, like innocence is transitory if not
illusionary — “just wait until you grow up, kids, life gets complicated.”
Instead it was simply the bi-polar BohËme pathology gone extreme. The
first two acts of the opera are indeed childish play, as are the antics of the
fourth act, and you know the rest of the story.

The juxtaposition of storybook and real seemed ridiculous but once you
thought about it, well, thought about it quite a lot, you could make it make
some sense. It was a justifiably abstracted bi-polar world that incorporated
Puccini’s verismo, if uncomfortably, by separating the visual and
sonic worlds. The musical was what is real, even tangible (like great
verismo really is), and the visual became a metaphysical world that
shadows and colors the real, like music ordinarily does (yes, this conclusion
took some thinking).

So we were very much on edge, and maybe heard this great masterpiece with
new ears, as we were seeing it with new eyes. There were other advantages that
we will get to.

Genoa_Boheme.gifScene from Genoa production of La BohËme [Photo by J. Morando]

Teatro Carlo Felice invited Genoa born and culturally nurtured artist
Francesco Musante to create this new production. Over his long career Mr.
Musante has exploited op art and Viennese Succession influences, he has worked
in water color, lithograph and particularly illustration. A specific reference
in his oeuvre to this telling of La BohËme might be his comic book
rendition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland (1980). Mr. Musante
is not widely known outside Italy.

The Musante abbozzi, or renderings of the scenes displayed in the
foyer of the opera house succinctly expounded the artist’s specific vision of
La BohËme — a bright and noisy world animated by children. Act II
was in fact an illustrated music box merry-go-round wound up by the children on
the stage at the end of Act I.

On the Carlo Felice stage Mr. Musante’s sketches were made live by Italian
actor Augusto Fornari who presumably was in cahoots with the artist. This
obviously able stage director was hampered by the absence of professional child
actors, here the extensive mimicry was supplied by members of the Carlo
Felice’s Children’s Chorus (“coro di voci bianchi”). But what
a chorus this was! The first in living memory to carry out hyper visual antics
in perfect [!] synchronization with the Puccini’s musical antics — among
them the entry of a 12 member (maybe more) marching band that capped the Momus
act with utter visual and musical delirium.

Unaided by any visual realism whatsoever, conductor Marco Guidarini managed
only a restrained verismo that fully supported Puccini’s needs but
mostly missed finding a synergy with the stage. If this BohËme’s
visual world was exuberant and extravagant, Mo. Guidarini’s Puccinian thrust
was careful and by-the-book when it could have been pushed to and even beyond
verismo extremes.

Musante’s stylized visual language obliterated the need for singers to
look or be bohemians, thus they came in all shapes, ages and sizes but to a man
on January 5 they had solid Italian schooling and gave big vocal performances
with big mannerisms that might be considered tasteless in more restrained
musical cultures. Three casts people its eleven performances over a two month
period (into February). On January 5 Massimiliano Pisapia was the Rodolfo,
though were it not for his musical postures he might have been singing
Siegfried. Amarilli Nizza is an accomplished Tosca and Aida on big stages
(Verona, Vienna) so she was hardly a retiring Mimi. Hers was a fully
successful, vocally and musically splendid performance. Of special interest as
well was the Musetta of Alida Berti whose vocal and presence actually matched
the exuberance and innocence of the production, as did the remarkably vivid,
full voiced Alcindoro of Fabrizio Beggi.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Scene from Toulon production of La BohËme
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La BohËme
product_by=Toulon Production. Mimi: Nuccia Focile; Rodolfo: Arnold Rutkowski; Musetta: Anna Kasyan; Marcello: Devid Ceconi; Schaunard: Massimiliano Gagliardo; Colline: Roberto Tagliavini; Benoit & Alcindoro: Guy Flechter; Parpignol: Jean-Marie Bourdiol. Chorus and Orchestra of OpÈra Toulon Provence MÈditerranÈe. Conductor: Giuliano Carella. Mise en scÈne: Daniel Benoin. Sets and costumes: Jean-Pierre Laporte and Daniel Benoin. Lighting: Daniel Benoin. (December 29, 2011)

Marseille Production. Mimi: Nathalie Manfrino; Musetta: Gabrielle Philiponet; Rodolfo: Ricardo Bernal; Marcello: Marck Barrard; Colline: Nicolas Courjal; Schaunard: Igor Gnidii; Benoit: FranÁois Castel; Alcindoro: Antoine Normand. Chorus and Orchestra of OpÈra de Marseille. Conductor: Mark Shanahan. Mise en scÈne: Jean-Louis Pichon. Scenery: Alexandre Heyraud. Costumes: FrÈdÈric Pineau. Lighting: Michel Theuil. (January 3, 2012)

Genoa Production. Mimi: Amarilli Nizza; Musetta: Alida Berti; Rodolfo: Massimiliano Pisapia; Marcello: Roberto SËrvile; Schaunard: Dario GiogelÈ; Colline Christian Faravelli; Parpignol: Pasquale Graziano; Benoit: Davide Mura; Alcindoro: Fabrizio. Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Marco Guidarini. Scene and Costume Design: Francesco Musante. Stage direction: Augusto Fornari. Lighting: Luciano Novelli. (January 5, 2012)
product_id=Above: Scene from Toulon production of La BohËme