Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Elusive Bohème

What is it about Puccini’s La Bohème that makes it so difficult to bring off? Technically, it is certainly less complex than anything by Wagner, or even Verdi. To be sure, it requires very good voices, as any great opera does. But a great performance of La Bohème calls for more than great voices, or beautiful tunes.

Vancouver Opera’s latest production of the perennially and justifiably popular opera again illustrates the difficulties in any performance of this great work. Other than a very moving fourth act, the performance was strangely lacking in passion. All the principals had beautiful voices, the orchestra played competently, and conductor Leslie Dala held everything together - but there was no sense of urgency in the performance. Once when coaching tenor Vinson Cole, Herbert von Karajan told him to sing “as if the police were behind you,” precisely the kind of urgency, an ardent quality in the music making, that the performance lacked. When we add up all the elements of this particular production, it just doesn’t add up to be more than merely the sum of its parts.

In 1982, New York’s Metropolitan Opera put on a new production of La Bohème, directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli. The performance, televised on Public Television, remains for me, one of the most moving performances of that opera. Even with the extremely poor sound quality, all the singers poured their hearts out and became, a la Stanislavski, the characters they were portraying. Years later, I visited the Metropolitan Opera and saw the same production of the opera with a different cast of singers and a different conductor, and the performance was one of the least inspiring and most lacklustre La Bohème I had seen.

Other than total commitment on the part of the singers, La Bohème requires a conductor that does more than direct traffic, but one that possesses a definite vision of the score. On opening night, Leslie Dala merely accompanied the singers in beautiful singing, rather than drove and inspired everyone on stage and in the pit to give more of themselves than they thought possible. There was a complete lack of tension in the music making – not physical tension, but a tension in the musical fabric.

Once again, singers and instrumentalists were not helped by the dead acoustics of the atrocious Queen Elizabeth Theatre. No matter how hard they are singing or playing, the sound just does not bloom in that dreadful space.

Nancy Hermiston directed the production with her usual thoughtfulness, but I believe that she was somewhat limited by the constraints of the rather small set, and thereby missed many dramatic possibilities in the action.

And so, I will continue to search for that perfect La Bohème. Perhaps one fine evening, when all the stars are aligned correctly, we will see and hear a performance of this magnificent opera when all the elements come together to give us a Bohème that far exceeds the sum of its parts. Perhaps that is asking a lot, but it was and is what Puccini’s great score calls for, and it is what every piece of great music calls for in its performance.

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