Bohemians in a bad mood

Marcello (baritone Andrzej Filoncsyk) appears to be in a rotten mood. Rodolfo – the wonderful tenor Charles Castronovo – seems to be sad about something or other. These bohemians seem to be a bit too stressed by hunger, poverty, and cold to have any fun even before tragedy strikes. Colline (Peter Kellner) does not seem to bring any positive changes to the darkness on stage. Not until the entrance of Schaunard – the gifted baritone Guyla Nagy – do things begin to lighten up.

Throughout the first moments of Act I, humor seems to be neither in sight nor within earshot, and the flatness and drabness of the set – an attic devoid of any of the things that bohemians seem to accumulate in their living quarters – forces the singers to face straight out at the camera in a park and bark fashion, dampening any semblance of natural behavior.

The proceedings improve when Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva) comes knocking, asking Rodolfo to light her candle. The enchantment of the encounter between these two lonely people flows dramatically and musically, with Charles Castronovo delivering a flawless Che gelida manina, and Sonya Yoncheva replying with an equally lovely Mi chiamano Mimi.

With the duet that follows, the singers triumph over arbitrary production design and directorial capriciousness, although Act II threatens to send things south with the ham-fisted acting of the utterly vulgar Musetta of Simona Mihai, who caps the ending of her waltz by removing her knickers in plain view of the entire Café Momus crowd and thrusting them in Marcello’ face.

The invernal sadness of Act III is better served by stage director Richard Jones’ approach, with Sonya Yoncheva’s poignant farewell to Rodolfo and their ensuing duet both touching in their honesty.

The inexplicable directorial choices continue in Act IV: no easel for Marcello, who is asked to mime painting on a non-existent canvas situated in mid-air, thus qualifying the singer for a Marcel Marceau award. One kept waiting to see what solution the stage director would find for Mimi’s deathbed. Ah, yes… a blanket on the floor.

As we have grown to expect, the Opus Arte issue is top notch, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra doing sterling musical work, led by Emmanuel Villaume in a solidly idiomatic reading of Puccini’s score.

When left to their own devices, singers resort to whatever they know in order to survive directorial absurdities. Kudos go to Sonya Yoncheva and Charles Castronovo for saving the ending of the opera by means of glorious singing and straightforward dramatic commitment. But I do wish them better luck next time with whoever directs them.

Rafael de Acha        All About the Arts