Bettina Mara
Puccini: La Bohème, Berlin, 1 March 2008
Puccini, Bohème, Staatsoper unter den Linden
A star-studded revival of Lindey Hume’s 2001 version of La Bohème made for a run of satisfyingly sold-out performances at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden, although the crowds were hardly drawn by the staging itself. A nostalgic reference to the golden years of Hollywood, complete with Musetta as a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like, it came across as a randomly chosen, placating and interchangeable production, though doubtless not devoid of appeal for those who associate fond memories with these times, as Humes obviously does herself. Her contribution to the program was a somewhat self-indulgent, though not altogether boring - piece about her grandmother, designed to add color to the production concept.

On the contrary, it was Jonas Kaufmann’s long awaited “return” to the German opera stage (as well as part of his launch into the Italian repertoire) that made seats hard to come by. However, the handsome Bavarian tenor, although a hot ticket by any measure, can hardly by considered a discovery any longer at this point; it’s just that he had to be (somewhat ludicrously) billed as “the new Villazon” and sign with Decca (his new CD “Romantic Arias” was on display all over the foyer) for his fellow countrymen to take such major notice of him. Singing Rodolfo was an ideal opportunity for him to show them how much he has to offer – the lovely timbre that is a feature of a voice packed with power. Luckily for him his voice is very strong indeed - and he has tremendous stage presence and a sensitive approach to his role - because whiz-kid Gustavo Dudamel regularly cranked up the volume of his beautiful, fluid Puccini-phrases to fortissimo, thus putting all the vocalists under quite some pressure). All in all, is Kaufmann virtually too good to be true, or too perfect to come across as truly moving? No, I would prefer to put that down to the indifferent staging – one can hardly find fault with him for doing everything right.

Nonetheless, it seemed a shame that the audience paid him notably more attention than his colleague Alexia Voulgaridou, thus attesting to the fact that under the influence of too much media hype, the public often loses its ability to simply listen / use sound judgement. Her Mimì had every bit of the sweet quality of the soprano invoked by Thomas Mann in “The Magic Mountain”, enhanced by a mysterious, ravishing dark quality which makes her voice quite unique, the variety of shades seeming to become increasingly varied as the story unfolded and the heroine’s death drew closer. Her phrasing is flawless and she moves with the poise of one who has sung a role countless times (her appearance in Bregenz with Villazon is available on DVD, incidentally) but wh0 never fails to give a fresh performance, making the lost-key-scene a reflection of Henry Murger’s musings on how love springs from spontaneous inspiration, as if it were a form of improvisation. And by the way, her first solo CD was released two years ago and well received, but Arte Nova Classics is not as high-profile as Decca.

The remaining cast did well, although Anna Samuil as Musetta was just a tad too shrill in her opening aria and Arttu Kataja sounded a bit thin at times as Schaunard. Alfredo Daza was a reliable Marcello and Alexander Vinogradov gave a poignant rendition of the coat aria. But above all, the entire ensemble came together superbly in thegreat feat of team work that is this opera, building up the tension brilliantly right up until the end when Mimì breathed her last and an inspired young Dudamel led the orchestra from D flat major to b minor.

All the Staatsoper really needs to do now is invest in a new production some time soon – and since much is made of it in the lead program essay perhaps, why not base it on the ingenious film by Kaurismäki – La Vie de Bohème? Or, at the risk of sounding facetious, might I suggest they consider importing a recent and excellent version by Graham Vick from as seemingly unlikely a place as Athens (reviewed here.)

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