World No. 3 La Bohème scores in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 30.09.2014

In the hit parade of operas, Puccini’s La Bohème rates a solid third place after La Traviata and Carmen, so it was pretty much guaranteed a rousing reception as the opener of the new season in Bordeaux last week.

Opting for a modern-dress version, the popular English conductor Paul Daniel brought it off with what the French would call panache. The action was transported from Puccini’s 1830s to 1967, the eve of modern student revolt in Paris. The displacement, engineered by designer Laurent Laffargue, worked so well as both eras were notable for middle class youth rebelling and claiming to be penniless. 

Daniel worked the pit, too, producing just the mellifluous sound appropriate for the succession of Puccini’s memorable love songs.  Daniel [in the picture] took applause with grace and his signature electric smile.  At the end, curtain calls went on and on; I lost count.

Daniel kept the voices and the instruments in perfect sync throughout, no mean feat considering the arias we all can hum (Si le chiamano Mimi, Che gelida manina, Quando men vo, O Soave Fanciulla) and a huge chorus of singers and a marching band crowding the stage in the bar in Act II. It all seemed so natural. 

Sébastien Guèze as Rodolfo and Nathalie Manfrino as Mimi made a perfect vocal marriage and centerpiece for the tear-jerking love affair that ends in Mimi’s death from tuberculosis. In Puccini’s day, not a dry eye was left in the house. Today our sensibilities have been coarsened by too much entertainment.

American coloratura Georgia Jarman deserves mention for her exotic, erotic Musette, dramatized in a powerfully uninhibited rendering of her part.

Spontaneous applause erupted from Bordeaux’s opening night audience, many finely attired for the occasion, after each of the familiar arias. 

The performance was staged in Italian with helpful and highly literate translation into French on three screens in the charming jewelbox 18th century Grand Théâtre of central Bordeaux.

The Bordeaux Opera prior to Daniel’s arrival two years ago was a spotty operation, some productions tainted with outright provincialism. Now Bordeaux felt sufficiently self-confident to allow a video simulcast piped into 60 cinemas around France. It was the first time any French opera company outside of snobbish Paris has dared to assert itself.

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