Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Opéra National de Paris: Très Magnifique La Boheme at the Bastille, October 21, 2005

December 20th, 2005

We were in Paris for eight days, during every day of which the Opera Bastille performed La Boheme with alternating casts. Although all the performances were sold out, the concierge at our hotel (the Park Hyatt – Paris Vendôme) was able to secure us very nice orchestra seats for the cast headed by the Rodolfo of Rolando Villazon. We had seen Villazon in October, 2004 as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at San Francisco Opera and I had seen him as Romeo with Anna Netrebko in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” in Los Angeles in February, 2005.

Obviously, Villazon and Netrebko, apart and together, are being heavily promoted. Their pictures were all over downtown Zurich heralding a joint scheduled concert performance there, and a new studio recording of “La Traviata” has been released starring the two of them.

Of the two tenors sharing the Paris “Bohemes”, Villazon had the premiere night and nine of the scheduled 17 performances. His Mimi for the night we attended was the Chilean soprano Angela Marambio. Franck Ferrari was the Marcello, Elena Semenova the Musetta, Jose Fardilha the Schaunard and Alexander Vinogradov the Colline.

[Below: Mimi (Angela Marambio) meets Rodolfo (Rolando Villazon); edited image, based on a photograph from a Metropolitan Opera production of “La Boheme”.]

I had felt Villazon’s voice was too light for the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and, though it seemed just fine at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, I believed that the Opera Bastille’s size also challenged his voice. But he is an exciting actor, almost manic in the physicality he puts into expressing his ardor and pathos.

His supporting cast (it is Pavarotti who seems to have persuaded us that the tenor is the center of this opera) was uniformly good, although all were unknown to me before that evening. It would have been a pleasant evening musically, even if it were accompanied by one of the bizarre productions one now expects in much of Europe.

But the production, by Jonathan Miller, assisted by the “decors” of Dante Ferreti and the costumes of Gabriella Pescucci, was spectacular.

[Below: the Act I garret, inhabited by the Bohemians (here from a later year performance with Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo and Nicole Cabell as Mimi; edited image of a production photograph for the Opéra National de Paris.]



It was time-shifted, of course, to the 1930s, so that the apartment of the Bohemians could show a giant poster extolling a Jean Harlow movie and so that Musetta’s prewar outfit in the third act could be exhibited as a Jean Harlow character with shorter skirts and a more buxom top than we often see. But nothing that was done diminished the effectiveness of the story and the opera’s theatrical viability.

[Below: the Cafe Momus in Jonathan Miller’s production of “La Boheme”; resized image from an Opéra National de Paris photograph.]


What astonished us about the production was Act II, in the Cafe de Momus. In all previous productions I had seen, we see the cafe’s patrons from the outside point of view, observing those that choose to have their drinks and dinner in the sidewalk tables.

[Below: the Act III sets for Jonathan Miller’s production of “La Boheme”; edited image from an Opéra National de Paris photograph.]

 In the Paris production, we are inside the cafe.We can see activities occurring outside through the many window panes that constitute the cafe mid-stage, but most of the action takes place inside, even including Parpingnol’s hustling for the school-kids’ coins to buy his cheap toys.

No one doubts that La Boheme is an Italian opera, rather likely the most popular of all time. But it is about Parisians in Paris. The production of the Opera Bastille, even granting Miller’s non-Parisian roots, gives more of a feel of Parisian Bohemians, than anything I have ever experienced in an opera house.

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