Monday, July 4, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

As the summer heat is about to hit Rome, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is wrapping up its current season with a production of the all-time favourite tear jerker, Puccini’s La Bohème directed by Marco Gandini. The production was performed ten times between June 16 and 26, 2011 at the beautiful Teatro dell’Opera also known as the Costanzi after its builder.

Rome Opera has two sets of starving artists in a cold Parisian garret as well as two sopranos for the beautiful embroiderer Mimi and the loose Musetta. Mimi has the requisite tuberculosis so she will not last more than four acts and the vivacious but golden-hearted Musetta will give us a flavour of what “other” girls are like.

The role of Mimi is alternated between Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava and Italian soprano Carmela Remigio. I saw the performance with Gerzmava. She has an attractive voice which she can modulate to produce tonal beauty and emotion. She is a good-sized woman and not quite the fragile girl who faints from weakness upon meeting Rodolfo that fateful Christmas Eve when her candle blows out.

She affects us with “Mi chiamano Mimi,” moves us with“Donde lieta uscì,” her farewell to Rodolfo, and has us in tears with her death scene.

The role of the writer Rodolfo is shared by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas and Italian tenor Stefano Secco. I saw Vargas. He is over 50 and I am wondering if his best before date has not arrived. His Rodolfo was not terribly convincing physically or vocally. He was fine if not big-voiced at mid-range but he simply failed to soar in his big arias. His high notes sounded thin and forced. We want a Rodolfo who is robust and more attractive. I have seen him in the role before with much better results but this time he did not seem to be quite up to the demands of the role and must be judged a bit of a disappointment.

Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi was a lively and flirtatious Musetta. She handles her main aria “Quando m'en vo'” which has the distinction of being better known as “Musetta’s Waltz” with zest and aplomb.

Rodolfo’s roommates get decent roles but relatively little opportunity to show off their vocal or acting powers. They participate in ensemble pieces, horse around in the first act and rush around at the end of the opera but that’s about it. Nevertheless, in this production my eye was caught by baritone Franco Vassalo’s performance as the artist Marcello. The Italian singer has a fine voice that resonated beautifully. He outshone and outsang Vargas. Too bad that Puccini did not give Marcello at least one big aria but left him as a second banana in ensembles and duets.

Bass-baritone Vito Priante was a colourful and well-done Schaunard and bass Marco Spotti was a lean Colline in a fine performance. Bass Matteo Peirone was the landlord Benoit and bass Luca Dall’Amico was Alcindoro in all performances.

Set designer Pierluigi Samaritani used the whole stage for the apartment of the poor foursome with no attempt to suggest a cramped attic or a view of the roofs of Paris’s Latin Quarter. Marcello is working on a huge canvas that covers a good part of the set in the first act. It is removed for the final act when we return to the flat for Mimi’s death.

The second act takes place on a bustling street scene. In this production, the street/stage is full of people but it looks more like a traffic jam than a lively scene. Gandini does not quite know how to control the crowd and he lets them stand there for a bit too long. Overall, however, the costumes by Anna Biagiotti and the sets do the job.

James Conlon conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. This is a sound and solid production of a well-loved chestnut that one never tires of seeing.

While Costanzi was building the Rome Opera, a group of English residents of Florence were breaking away from their parish because they found it “too low”. In 1877, they established St. Marks English Church in Florence. More than 230 years later, the church is still active as a place of worship but it also houses St. Mark’s Opera Company.

I caught a performance of La Bohème there, a day after seeing the opera in Rome. The number of characters was reduced to four and the singing was done to piano accompaniment. It was a somewhat acted out concert version with a Narrator to explain the action.

Silvana Froli as Mimi has a pleasant voice and in the piano sections sounded very pleasant. She and the rest did not have much luck when singing more loudly. Much of the blame goes to the venue. The church may be good for the soul but its acoustics do nothing for the human voice. The low, vaulted ceiling acts like an echo chamber, multiplying sound.

Tenor David Righeschi has a robust voice and a Pavarottiesque girth. He hit his high Cs but he was a bit patchy in his lower register. He had the same trouble with the acoustics, of course, and perhaps even more so than the others.

Sarah Chirici sang Musetta with poise and verve and Lisandro de Guinis made a sonorous Marcello. All the other characters in the opera were edited out with perhaps one exception.

This is opera from five feet away on a hot Italian evening where a few, quite a few, members of the audience think that it is a photo-op. It may have been freezing in the artists’ attic but in St. Mark’s Church there were beads of perspiration on the faces of the performers.

This is opera with just about all the odds working against you. Yet, they did it. The person most responsible deserves special mention. His job description may inludes the follwoing and the list may be only partial: Greeter, usher, narrator, performer, intermission server, and philanthropic fundraiser. This much we saw. According to the program, he is also, with his wife Ilse, the founder of St. Mark’s Opera Company. His name is Franz Moser

Is it any wonder that the company got an extended standing ovation.

La Bohème was performed at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome between June 19 and 26 and at St. Mark’s English Church in Florence on June 24, 2011

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