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Puccini's La Bohème is a rarity in the world of opera, indeed, in the world of drama in general, a world that thrives on conflict and duplicity. It is full of genuine good-hearted people, and its joys and griefs have doubtlessly contributed to giving it a particular warm place in the heart of opera lovers since its first production. Ample proof of this was the full house that greeted Leone Philharmonic Society's latest opera production at the Aurora Theatre in Gozo on 12 October.


Posted: 27th October 2019

A tale of love, merriment and sorrow

Cecilia Xuereb reviews the 2019 production of La Boheme at Teatru tal-Opra Aurora on The Malta Independent on Sunday 27.10.2019.

 

The source of the libretto was a play about youngsters on the fringes of society, living in streets unknown to respectable theatregoers, based on the collected stories Scénes De La Bohème by Mürger. These, Puccini's librettists Illica and Giacosa, shaped and cut, and moulded the characters to become people Puccini wanted to bring to musical life. In fact Vivien Hewitt, artistic director of the production, regards this as the most autobiographical of Puccini's operas seeing in the characters as well as in some of the events reflections of people and events in Puccini's life. 

The four acts of the opera form a well-constructed whole both musically and dramatically. The first act, which represents an attic in the Latin quarter of Paris, the home of four artist friends, is a picture of poverty. Yet there is plenty of merriment in it - a fact established musically at the very opening of the opera with Puccini's energetic theme. This settles down and Marcello, the painter, sings that his picture The Crossing of the Red Sea correlates with the damp, cold room. He is willing to sacrifice it in order to warm up the room. Rodolfo, the author, sacrifices his manuscript, while Colline, the philospher, tries to pawn his books. In spite of the cold and the poverty the atmosphere is carefree, the tone of the scene spirited and comical and exclusively male. Puccini does this through his writing for the ­­various instruments of the orchestra. The arrival of Schaunard, the musician, introduces plenty of merriment. He brings food, fuel and funds he has collected - he was commissioned to keep on playing in order to bring about the death of a parrot. But the story does not really interest his friends who are simply delighted with what he has provided and on the whole ignore him. With the entry of Mimi, the music and the tone of the opera becomes gentle bursting into passionate expression with a flow of melodies as Mimi's personality grows on us throughout the rest of the act.

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This structure is mirrored in Act IV, but this time the music is shortened and the mood is different. In the attic the friends are still cold, lonely and penniless. Colline brings in a meagre meal and to lighten the atmosphere the four friends stage a dance. Musetta is no longer the high-spirited girl of the Cafe Momus who bursts in in Act II, while the love element brought in by the entry of Mimi is still lyrical but clouded by sadness and death. So is the music, and the opera ends on long sad fading chords.

In between these two acts are two contrastng acts. In Act II we find Cafe Momus, a favourite tavern with artists in the Latin quarter where the lifestyle was unconventional and ran along, and often crossed the lines of poverty, promiscuity and conniving to get by day by day. The Bohemian atmosphere is musically established straightaway with loud bold chords and, apart from Musetta's aria, the vocal lines create a busy atmosphere that contrasts with the intimacy of Act I.

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(Machaidze) sang with great spirit, each phrase descending in pitch yet maintaining excitement as it was succeeded by a new phrase starting even higher. Mimi is a taxing role that Machaidze performed brilliantly.

In Act III the curtain opens on a Paris toll-gate. This is the bleakest part of the opera. The bright continuous bare chords of Act II are replaced by cold icy damp notes on flutes and harp over a trembling cello drone as the instruments of the orchestra paint the scene. Any brightness in the music sounds forced. Delicate orchestral writing matches the mood of love that feels eternal in a life that is only too mortal. Mimi is again the sick lonely reticent girl we saw at the beginning. The youthful hopes and energies of the first two acts have given way to the bitter experience of the fears and illness in the last two. The act closes as it began with two loud notes that snap shut the strong emotional space which this long lovers' scene has taken place. The whole act is a song of love and death which anticipates the final separation in Act 4.

Vivien Hewitt's strong production brought out all these elements emphasising the strong contrasts as well as the overall unity of the libretto and the music. Both musically and dramatically, however, the opening scene was rather tame. The orchestra playing lacked incisiveness and it took conductor Colin Attard some time to get the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra up to the standards of performance that we now expect from it. Both the orchestra and the singers needed time to build up to the real pathos of acts three and four. Individual instrumental playing, however, was excellent throughout the performance.

Soprano Nino Machaidze was an eye-catching figure vocally towering above all the other characters singing with clarity and coolness as well as elegance. Her musical and dramatic persona grew from that of the passive heroine who does not even understand her nickname to the more confident girl whose timidity melts when she sees the possibility of love. She sang with great spirit, each phrase descending in pitch yet maintaining excitement as it was succeeded by a new phrase starting even higher. Mimi is a taxing role that Machaidze performed brilliantly.

2019.10.28 La Boheme Review Cecilia Xuereb News Banner 4Next to her, the principal men sounded less remarkable. Tenor Ivan Defabiani's singing was uneven in Act I and only reached its full vocal capability in the last act in which his duet with Machaidze had real pathos. Soprano Maria Novella Malfatti was a radiant Musetta. With the excitement she introduced in Act II she was a foil for the homely and delicate heroine, but showed real feeling in the last act. There was good work from Krum Galabov and Mariano Buccino in the parts of Marcello and Colline and Enrico Maria Marabelli as Schaunard. Buccino's Vecchia Zimarra in Act IV got the warm applause that it deserved. All the other secondary parts and the chorus were in good form. The sets were tasteful (although I could not understand why Mimi should have gone down steps to reach the attic rather than go up) and with Luke Azzopardi's 1890's costumes - inspired apparently by the paintings of Renoir - completed the picture.

While Verdi's Aida has been announced as next year's production by the Leone Philharmonic Society this production, number 46 by the Society, was yet another success in the history of opera in Gozo.

Pictures by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi.

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