What an unexpectedly disappointing affair this bohème was, a tragedy because the whole thing came across as over-directed and completely un-spontaneous, tragedy because the tragedy didn’t quite work, in part from the fact that Anna Netrebko ended up sounding bizarrely miscast.
From the start things seemed a bit unsteady. The orchestra’s first notes under Dan Ettinger‘s baton gave me a sense that things wouldn’t go too well for the cast. The opening bars were rushed and horribly fudged, sadly not a mistake of nerves, but intentional as the same treatment was given in Act IV. Joseph Calleja was slightly thrown himself, and had to play catch up in his first few lines. Regardless, those lines were given with lovely clarity, his enunciation coming across very well. He still possesses a very fast vibrato, which I can’t quite tolerate at high volumes though. In places it really makes itself noticed. (For instance Act III’s “ma ho paura, ma ho paura!” had enough “shake” to call for some well-needed absinthe based relief at the Momus.) Also, At the end of the pair’s “Spring” duet, Calleja attempted to float a piano note, which instead came out as a weirdly strangulated falsetto. (I was reminded one of Rob Brydon’s “little man trapped in a box voice”.) He gave the role a good shot.
Lucas Meachem‘s Marcello did not sound like a small man trapped in a box, but instead came across as broad and refined. His baritone is lyrical and I am unsure he it is naturally given to tragedy (as his excellent Barbiere at the Royal Opera House showed, he can certainly handle comedy,) but he was convincingly co-dependent with Jennifer Rowley’s Musetta who was herself excellent, perhaps the best thing in Act II and IV.
Ettinger didn’t afford Marco Vinco‘s Colline much chance to say goodbye to his beloved coat, it was over too fast and not given enough pathos, a contrast to the entire preceding two hours, where Marcello’s little insult of “hurry up, you snail” could easily apply to Ettinger’s “stately” conducting. I swear I heard someone shout something out from the amphi before Act III began, which sounded like someone telling him to hurry up.
So sadly, “Che gelida” was horribly slow, noticeable too because thoroughly absent of any poetry from the pit. The same went for “O soave fanciulla,…” which was absent of any moonlight at all, or any sense of thrill. Indeed, the slow pace didn’t just afflict the couple: Musetta’s promenade (“Quando me n’vò”) sounded like she was dragging her heels after a particularly long shopping expedition with “Lulu” and by the end of that Act even the dog didn’t generate a smile. The whole evening felt like it had sterilised and stripped of all romance, a feat I scarcely thought possible.
Rarely was any concession made to lyricism programmed into the score. With the whole piece thus expunged of any of Puccini’s delicacy or ebullience it sounded merely as if the band was going through the motions – or rather, as if they were following Ettinger’s inadequate direction. (As my friend said, “he doesn’t look like a conductor” and her fears were well founded.)
The same feeling of “going through the motions” infected the directing. I gather
that Copley himself has been drawn back to direct this (I might be wrong on that though,) and if it feels turgid,
staid and over-cooked because of that then that’s a real shame.
To enumerate some clumsy
moments: there was precious little humour from all in the scene with Jeremy White’s Benoit, and Meachem’s spit-take beforehand felt totally un-spontaneous and over the top. When Colline fell down the stairs, Calleja opens the door casually to ask if he is ok, an insouciant gesture which just came off as trying too hard for chuckles. Better just to call out and ask.
Let’s continue: When Mimi faints upon her arrival in the garret Rudolfo showed no urgency or consternation at the sight of it: he might as well have been fetching water for a plant. When he says to Mimi that he is a poet he flung all his papers up in the air: I thought “really? wouldn’t he much rather actually wave them in her face?” as evidence? but instead when the moment came where he sings that he writes odes and love poems, he was left empty handed. A little later, in “Mi chiamano Mimì” the libretto says “Are you understanding me?” and instead of moving closer, saying “yes,” and meaning it – instead of showing us he is falling in love – Calleja just sits there rather unmoved. Later, he says “give me your arm” to the new love of his life whilst they are about eight feet away from each other, and then he doesn’t profer it, and then I nearly facepalmed and oh my god, that was all in about only ten minutes of stage action.
The rest felt the same. Act IV should be rambunctious and silly before the awful chord presaging Mimi’s arrival, but it just didn’t work. In one part in this same act three of the guys ran to the bed and jumped on it in unison, with again no spontaneity visible at all. It was obvious that the director had said “and NOW on THIS cue you ALL run here together, annnnd jump up and down a bit!” and that’s exactly what it looked like. Three guys waiting for the cue and then hitting their mark. No horseplay, no cajoling or elbowing or free spirited Bohemianism: it is as if the director has a bad eye for blocking (and perhaps not only blocking…?) No wonder the guy in front of me fell asleep and started snoring halfway through Act I. Ettinger plus this direction did not a good Bohème make. (Still, the snow looked good.)
Which leaves only Anna to mention. Anna Netrebko herself, doesn’t a good Bohème make, either. Her Mimi’s very very very quiet knock on the garret door was the only meek thing about her in the whole evening. From her first notes, one would have thought her a mezzo-soprano. Her voice is darker than ever, unhesitatingly loud in amplitude and hardly what I expected from any Mimi. She was more matron, than grisette, and I do not refer here to her appearance. Not content to sing over everyone else onstage, she did so with precious little nuance to boot. She certainly gave her heart to it and commendably so, but in service of that her voice showed itself as manifestly unsuited to the role, having now outgrown it.
La bohème at its best should make one feel as if another outcome were possible, that under the law of love Mimi should survive. One wills it almost – until she dies- whereupon we are moved, or rather, we should be moved. Here, I was not, as I had not been primed to care. The chemistry didn’t work. Calleja did a good job of displaying grief at Mimi’s demise, the requisite sniffles, tears, etc sounded convincing but it was all in vain. Really, this Boheme should have been left in the pawn shop.
I leave you with a picture of a dog.