The Bavarian State Opera’s staging of La Bohème is one of the oldest in its repertoire – Otto Schenk’s venerable production has been gracing the stage of the Nationaltheater Munich for over forty years now, yet on the first night of its umpteenth revival on 12 December eclipsed any version that London has seen within that time, and remarkably had more vim and vigour than Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO which is a mere three years old.
It wasn’t hard to decipher the reasons why. Schenk has an incredible eye for detail, there was no extraneous business, and once past a somewhat wobbly first act showed that he had utter faith in Puccini’s work and in Rudolf Heinrich’s evocative designs allowed the story to unfold naturally. There was a gasp of amazement and a ripple of applause when the curtain rose to reveal a bustling Parisian vista and the Café Momus – it was truly spectacular and one was never allowed to lose focus of the drama or the principals, and the handling of the crowd scenes was a miracle of deft direction.
It’s hard to know exactly how much rehearsal time the cast had for this perennial revival but even if there hadn’t been much, it didn’t show as all the principals were knitted into as engaging and believe a group of Bohemians as I’ve encountered in this opera. Levente Molnár was an ardent Marcello, whilst John Chest used his virile baritone to telling effect as Schaunard – his realisation that Mimi had expired in the last act was truly gut-wrenching. As Rodolfo Stefano Secco took time to warm up but he has the right kind of voice for the role and was at his best in the third act. Christian van Horn completed the quartet and was properly moving in his farewell to his coat in the last act.
As Mimi, Anja Harteros gave as moving and thrillingly-sung performance as I’ve heard in this role. The way she acted with the voice was remarkable, singing with abandon in the first act yet managing to produce a thread of tone once the character had succumbed to illness in the final act. Her voice is spinto in character yet has smoky, creamy undertones which can’t help but seduce the listener. The fact that we’ve only ever heard her at Covent Garden in the role of Amelia in Simon Boccanegra (and that as a replacement for Nina Stemme) is nothing short of criminal.
Marco Armiliato conducted a perfectly balanced account of the work and the members of the orchestra played their hearts out – they are generally considered to be one of the best opera orchestras in the business and it showed. All in all this was a thrilling account of Puccini’s opera and having been to several pretty lacklustre performances in London made me fall in love with La Bohème all over again.