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PUCCINI: La Bohème

DVD Button Golovneva, Fontosh; Bäckström, Sulimsky, Hällström, Sebestyen; Malmö Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Badea. Production: Phelan. Naxos DVD 2.110385, 118 mins., subtitled

Bohemian Rhapsody

Got a case of Bohème fatigue? Not after you see this wonderful production from Sweden.

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A tonic balm: the fresh, direct Bohème in Malmö
© Malin Arnesson
Recordings Boheme Critics Choice Cover 1117
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OPERA-LOVERS WHO have “Bohème fatigue” should take note: this DVD from Sweden’s Malmö Opera is a tonic. Its modern-dress production of Puccini’s ever-popular tale of young love and tragedy features youthful, fresh-voiced singers who are also superb actors. Directed by Orpha Phelan and conducted by Christian Badea, this Bohème is visually believable from beginning to end without sacrificing vocal excellence. 

Leslie Travers’s set design, a circle unit constructed of metal and lights, starts as a raised platform for the Bohemian garret, then is used as an actual carousel in Momus and the front entrance of the inn for Act III. Travers’s contemporary costumes delineate character well. Other contemporary references are not jarring in this context: Rodolfo writes on a laptop computer; cell phones appear (then disappear for Acts III and IV); Benoît vengefully cuts off the garret’s electricity after he’s kicked out (making Mimì’s candle necessary). In Act IV, bailiffs take away the garret’s furniture during the Marcello–Rodolfo duet, so only a thin pad remains for Mimì’s final resting place. Perhaps the laptop and cell phones disappear because they have been sold to provide a little money for the desperate Bohemians!  

The glory of this production is the high-energy cast, particularly in the two leading roles. Tenor Joachim Bäckström is an ideal and endearing Rodolfo, ardent and marvelously vulnerable. Vocally, he seems more lyric than this role requires, but he nevertheless pours forth golden tone and bleats slightly only in the highest notes. This is a Rodolfo who moves from innocence at the beginning to emotional collapse at the end; his sobbing cries of “Mimì!” when he realizes she’s dead are heartbreaking.

He’s matched by the splendid soprano Olesya Golovneva, the most touching Mimì of my many experiences with this opera. She makes her first entrance as a frail, desperate girl who fakes her fainting in order to steal something from Rodolfo’s bag and stuff it in her puffy, ragged coat. (Unfortunately, the lighting by Thomas C. Hase was so dark that I couldn’t tell what she stole.) But she makes a marvelous transition through the scene as she falls for Rodolfo, returning what she lifted as Rodolfo talks to the offstage Bohemians. Golovneva brings a real fragility of body and spirit to her portrayal, using the many colors of her melodious soprano. Both Bäckström and Golovneva have a clear, personal and emotional connection to their roles, and one can feel the chemistry between them.

They are ably supported by the vivid characterizations from baritone Vladislav Sulimsky, an unusually affable Marcello, and Daniel Hällström, a strong, amusing and empathetic Schaunard. Colline is played rather blandly by Miklós Sebestyén, but he produces an effective coat aria with his velvety bass. Maria Fontosh’s Musetta is a bit shrill at Café Momus, but she redeems herself in the final act with fine acting and warm tone as she weeps for Mimì.

Badea leads the fine Malmö Opera Orchestra in an emotional reading of the score, and he supports the singers beautifully. Badea finds all the passion in Puccini’s music but also knows when to play quietly. Phelan directs a detailed production, always with clear focus. For Bohème veterans and newbies, this production makes an excellent case for the timelessness of this work. Young love, poverty and tragedy happen in every era.  —Henson Keys 

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