Two recent DVD issues of Italian operas by Puccini are both set in Paris, both have second acts in cafes/nightclubs, and both have stellar performances in crucial leading soprano roles. La Bohème, first seen in 1896 in Turin, has been since its premiere one of the world’s most popular operas, with its tale of love, highjinks and tragedy among young artists and working girls. This performance was filmed at the Puccini festival at Torre del Lago, an outdoor venue, in 2014. Ettore Scola, veteran Italian film director, who died earlier this year, had directed only one opera before in his life, but was chosen for this production which also features real life partners and lovers tenor Fabio Armiliato and late, lamented Daniela Dessì, both very famous in their native Italy due not only for their operatic work but for television appearances as well.
The sets by Luciano Ricceri are inventive but traditional, as is the whole production. A multi-level dwelling, the set for acts one and four, revolves to become the Cafe Momus and the custom house in act three. Surrounding streets and houses are shown to the sides. It is all very detailed and picturesque, a lot of French posters plastered to the walls, very pleasant to look at. Costumes are also firmly traditional and effective (by Cristina Da Rold).
It was a surprise at the opening of Act Two to see a painter with an easel working on a picture while a naked lady and two clothed companions posed for him, sitting on the ground, very much like Manet’s famous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe , though wouldn’t it be a little chilly to be naked in Paris on Christmas Eve?
I thought the direction of the big chorus with lots of children in Act Two was a bit disappointing for such a revered director as Scola, they just sort of milled around and stood in rows and sang, they were not very individualised. Otherwise the production is more or less what one expects with Bohème, and unlikely to upset anyone.
The conductor is the very good looking Valerio Galli, an up and coming young Italian. He gets top marks both for musicianship and hotness. I have enjoyed Armiliato in a number of operas, but here as Rodolfo he sings unremittingly loudly almost the entire time. After about ten minutes, his singing became monotonous and wearing for me to listen to. When he finally sang one note in head voice during the quartet in act three, it was a relief, but unfortunately it did not last. There is no nuance or variation of tone in Armiliatio’s singing here, it is just loud, loud, loud all the time.
As Marcello, Alessandro Luongo also used his sturdy and firm baritone merely to sing loudly all the time. Federico Longhi, a big hulking guy, nicely individualised Schaunard. Colline was the burly Marco Spotti, with an affecting Coat Song in the last act. In her gorgeous costumes, glamourous soprano Alida Berti certainly looked the part of a flamboyant floozy that people would stop and stare at in the street, as she sings in her famous (and well performed) Waltz Song.
With the performance of Dessì we move onto a different plane than the other singers. Although in close up you can see that she is really too mature to be ideal for the role physically (so is Armiliato), watching from the audience that would not be apparent and anyway it doesn’t matter when the singing and acting is as wonderful as this. Hers is a classic portrayal of Mimi, Italian singing at its best, beautiful use of portamento and vocal colours in “Mi chiamano Mimi”, intense but without strain in “Addio senza rancor”, very affecting in her acting. Knowing that she and Armiliato were partners and that he announced her death just days ago from a “breve, terribile e incomprensibile” disease makes watching the final act painfully poignant. It feels almost as though you are intruding into private grief.
Highly recommended for the pleasureable production and beautiful, heart-wrenching performance by Dessi.
La Rondine (The Swallow), which had its first performance in Monte Carlo in 1917, has never enjoyed similar popularity. Until recently it was a real rarity but in the last 20 years or so it has been much more widely performed. The story is a sort of hybrid of La Traviata and Die Fledermaus and the music, full of waltzes and sentimental love songs, was dismissed by the eminent Italian music publishers Ricordi, who had sponsored Puccini’s career from its beginning, as “bad Lehár” and they refused to publish it. I enjoyed the opera tremendously when I saw it at Covent Garden some years back with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna.
This production from the Deutsche Oper Berlin was directed by tenor Rolando Villazón and is updated to the 1920’s, which gives opportunity for fun and colourful costumes and sets, the costumes in particular being really quite stunning. In the first act, there is a huge backdrop of a naked, reclining Venus by Titian. The ’20’s setting gives the scene in the nightclub in act two a feeling of the musical Cabaret. The third act on the Riviera is also well realised with all white costumes for the two leads. A slightly annoying feature of the production is three guys dressed all in white who wear fencing masks and just stand around and pose a lot. They hold a picture or mirror frame up for Magda to look at or into in the first act, come with her into the cafe in act two and then stand in poses indicating discomfort in the last scene when Magda is leaving Ruggero. What this is supposed to mean I neither know nor care; to me it is just silly.
Conductor Roberto Rizzi-Brignol leads the superb orchestra and chorus of the Deutsche Oper with precision and flair. As Magda’s maid Lisette and her tenor boyfriend, the poet Prunier, Alexandra Hutton and Alvaro Zambrano are certainly lively and characterful but try a little too hard to be so, they could have done a little less mugging. They sing nicely, but she is a bit harsh on top. Excellent tenor Charles Castronovo sings ardently and with fine tone, believable equally as callow youth from the provinces, committed lover, and a desperately unhappy man when Magda leaves him. The quartet with chorus in praise of love in act two, one of the highlights of the score for me, is splendid.
Azerbaijani soprano Dinara Aliyeva, who sings mostly at the Bolshoi in Moscow, is a handsome woman with a luscious voice. She can sing pianissimo high notes, as in the famous “Doretta’s dream” in Act One, and is also capable of singing high and loud with no strain. She meets all the demands of the role with no problems and varies her tone and phrasing with sufficient colour and variety to keep the listener’s attention at all times. I look forward to hearing her again.