When Salzburg Festival Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the
Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of
La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses
from the audience. Soprano Anna Netrebko, the festival’s biggest
non-conductor star, was feeling fine (though as Mimì she would shortly die
of consumption). But the excellent tenor Piotr Beczala had decided a mere
ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo
that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further
hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would
be another star, Jonas Kaufmann, who is at the festival singing Bacchus in
Ariadne auf Naxos. After the forty minutes had elapsed, Pereira announced
the plan: Beczala would act the part while Kaufmann would sing from the side
of the stage.
It turned out to be a wonderful performance. While an awkward
arrangement, the miming approach preserved Damiano Michieletto’s detailed,
sensitive direction. The set presents a series of skewed perspectives: the
entire stage raked from left to right, backed with enormous windows that
dwarf the characters. In Tableau 2, an enormous map of Paris is covered with
tiny buildings. Tableau 3 takes place on a desolate highway that curves
vertically upstage like a Tableau from Inception, a tiny rest stop providing
shelter. In Tableau 4, the Bohemians have been evicted, and sit by a pile of
their belongings in the street.
But the sets, while striking, are never convincingly integrated into the
production, nor are they particularly visually beautiful. The production
succeeds in its small touches and fresh perspective on the characters and
their relationships. Instead of a sugary romance, we get a lovable but
flawed group of contemporary young adults going about their lives in Paris.
Mimì needs someone to light her cigarette, wine is drunk from red plastic
cups, and Tableau 2 presents us with an orgy of holiday consumerism with
shopping carts, Santa, elves, reindeer, and ending in video game systems for
all the children. In contrast to this wealth, the roadside scene shows trash
collectors, prostitutes, and other members of the modern underclass. Mimì is
timid and insecure, Rodolfo flatters her but doesn’t respect her. Musetta is
given an unusually sympathetic treatment, confident and stylish and enjoying
herself, instead of the conventional simpering narcissist. Michieletto has a
naturalistic approach of Personenregie, mostly realistic and restrained,
occasionally breaking out into a grand gesture—but only when called for by
It is particularly remarkable that the production worked as well as it
did in the face of Daniele Gatti’s eccentric conducting. While the Wiener
Philharmoniker sounded fantastic and their ensemble was impeccable, Gatti
seemingly has only two modes: very slow and very fast. Very fast was
reserved for the recitative-like sections, where the singers struggled to
articulate or make anything of the text at such a clip. Very slow was for
anything remotely lyrical, where the singers struggled to make their breath
last long enough, and in a few cases (notably the Tableau 2 quartet) left
the musical line indiscernible.
Anna Netrebko was perfectly cast as Mimì, singing with luscious,
chocolately tone from the lowest notes to the highest. She showed a
beautiful sense for the line of the music, even when it was moving in slow
motion, and has an emotional honesty and sense of integrity, never seeming
self-indulgent or upstaging. And yet when it’s her moment, she has enormous
presence. She began “Mi chimano Mimì” almost inconspicuously, facing Rodolfo
stage left, her back to the audience, but built to ending stage center,
turning around dramatically for the final phrases.
Beczala was a sympathetic and yet somewhat self-serving, immature
Rodolfo. As his voice, Kaufmann gave an intensely emotional, almost verismic
performance. Kaufmann's dark voice is not obviously Italianate and he had
sounded thoroughly Heldentenorian as Bacchus in Ariadne the previous night.
But here he sang with a melting legato line and wide dynamic variety,
floating soft phrases and letting out high notes with metallic power.
Coordination across the very wide stage and through Gatti’s unusual tempos
was sometimes a challenge, but under the circumstances very impressive.
(Pereira’s claim that this substitution was extraordinarily last-minute was
supported by Kaufmann’s khakis and plain white shirt. In the rarefied air of
Salzburg, one puts on a tie if one has time. The festival and the audience
were very lucky that this worked out.)
Nino Machaidze’s tone is thin and sometimes out of tune on high notes,
but she is an excellent actress. As Marcello, Massimo Cavaletti sang with
warm, round tone but was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra and, in
Tableau 3, Netrebko. The other Bohemians were, like Cavaletti, all native
Italian speakers, and one wonders if this linguistic comfort helped seem so
spontaneous in their singing and acting. Carlo Colombara made the most of
the coat aria, where Gatti’s funeral tempo seemed to actually work. The
supporting roles, chorus, and children’s chorus were outstanding, fully
living up to Salzburg’s reputation for quality.
While certainly an unusual evening, this Bohème was fortunately
not most memorable for its cast change but for being affecting, original,
and beautifully sung, and that is always something to be happy about.