After an inaugural Madama Butterfly that yielded mixed results at best, it was the turn for a new production of La Bohème, the most performed opera in the world. The Puccini masterpiece had last been presented in a Maurizio di Mattia production taking place under a huge Eiffel Tower: an essentially traditional mise-en-scène with some added novelty. For this edition of the Festival, which – as mentioned in the Madama Butterfly review – has been conceived as an attempt to rejuvenate and relaunch the brand, the choice was to create a Bohème engaging a pair of superstar singers and an emerging but already highly respected young conductor. As the icing on the cake, the management had the attention-grabbing idea to press into service a legendary veteran movie director who had previously staged only one opera over a decade ago. Ettore Scola, now 83 years old, is the creator of a high number of award-winning, seminal films, the most famous of which are perhaps – outside of Italy – La nuit de Varennes, Le bal, and particularly A special day, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. As he explains in the programme notes, as soon as he was approached to stage La Bohème, he had to fight hard to resist the temptation to give life to his “revolutionary” ideas; in the end he opted for an extremely traditional looking, rich, grandiose and detailed Bohème. Everything was as expected, and the lone element of newness was the presence of a painter portraying a group of people enjoying a meal on the grass, a nod to one of the most famous paintings in history. His being a movie director led him to elicit a very natural spontaneous acting, generally eschewing grand theatrical gestures. The set by Luciano Ricceri consisted of a central three-storied building which rotated in each act becoming the young artists’ humble abode, Café Momus, the Tavern with the nearby Customs, and then again the “dimora squallida”; on both sides lay two smaller buildings, all of them faithful to mid-nineteenth century Parisian architecture. Apart from being extremely attractive and full of lovely details, this Disneyesque massive set improved enormously the acoustics. Sets without backdrop such as the ones of Butterfly that allowed the view of a shimmering lake may certainly be visually mesmerizing, but they do deliver the coup de grâce to already ungrateful acoustics. In line with the spirit of the show, Cristina Da Rold’s costumes were exquisite and stylish.
In Italy Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato have become household names, not only for their long and successful operatic careers but also thanks to their appearances on popular TV shows and, in Armiliato’s case, in a Woody Allen film. They may be life companions, but it is difficult to imagine a more antithetical approach to singing. After several questionable repertoire choices, Ms. Dessì returns to one of her first roles, Mimì, which, by virtue of its essentially central tessitura, allows her to display the beauty, lushness and romantic fragrance of her instrument and does not unduly test her at times recalcitrant top. Her Act I aria was a textbook example of a dying art, real Italian singing, with beautifully and tastefully executed portamentos, floating As, graceful phrase-shaping with a remarkable range of colours. Her experience of more dramatic repertoire gave her an advantage in the most intense and desperate moments of Act III, with a quietly wrenching “Addio”, and her Death Scene was moving without being too artsy. Fabio Armiliato did attempt to employ a wider range of dynamics than customary, but at the end of the day only succeeded in singing forte throughout. What is most irksome is his custom of swallowing the high notes. His central register is still commanding, but all that gear switching soon becomes rather tedious.
The supporting roles were well cast. Angelo Nardinocchi refrained from the usual annoying excessive cackling and sang, rather than just speaking, the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. Federico Longhi stood out as Schaunard on the strength of a full-bodied baritone (and Scola engages with this character more than is normally seen). Marco Spotti was a solid Colline; the Coat Song is one of the many puzzles of this opera: is it sentimental or ironic? Or both? The sensitivity and finesse with which Spotti sang it (observing of course the conductor’s intentions) suggests that Colline is truly moved at that point. Alida Berti sang the Waltz intimately and is at times vivacious and touching; her top, at least her high Bs, was unassailable, while the rest of the voice sounded a little tremulous. Alessandro Luongo sang well, with a distinct voice and clear emotional response, showing a special flair for expressing Marcello’s humour, self-knowledge and ironic passion.
I have heard Valerio Galli in a number of operas, mostly Puccini but also a stirring La Forza del destino, and each time I am more and more convinced that we are in the presence of an ace conductor. La Bohème is an intricacy of Gordian knots under the disguise of apparent simplicity. For a conductor the challenge is how to reveal its charm and its mercurial nature and at the same time make a personal statement with it. Galli makes sure that this evergreen does not become a series of Ultimate Moments, expertly examined individual sequences. Most of them have their own highly persuasive logic and effect, but Galli reintegrates them into a whole, and has lovingly explored with the singers (successfully in most cases) to discover what endures in the context of a single performance. It is easy for someone conducting La Bohème to lose him or herself into trying to bring to life precious details, thus becoming alienating and fragmentary. Galli avoids this trap, offering a close-knit, unified narration, vivacious and moving at the appropriate moments, sailing seamlessly through comedy, romance and tragedy.
Because the Festival is an outdoor venue the performance was nearly thwarted by inclement weather when rain began to fall at the end of Act One, which so enticed the audience that an overwhelming majority of them waited patiently for over one hour before going back to their wet seats.