In both an extra interview and in the insert booklet included on this new Blu-Ray edition of Opus Arte's previously released SD version of La Boheme, stage director Giancarlo del Monaco talks about how cinematic a composer Giacomo Puccini was. Watching this sweeping and incredibly handsomely mounted production, a 2006 performance in Spain featuring the Madrid Symphony under the direction of Jesus Lopez Cobos, one is forced to not only agree, but to also see that del Monaco takes his description fairly literally, with an almost filmic staging (including one brilliant segue between the first two acts that will leave you thinking you've witnessed a special effect).
Bohemianism infiltrated the French consciousness in the 1800s with the rapid influx of usually unemployed artists, writers and other right-brain ruled people. The term Bohemian was wrongly applied to these creative folk since they tended to live in the poorer Gypsy neighborhoods, and the French wrongly assumed that the Gypsies originated in Bohemia. Puccini took the strands of one of the more famous Bohemian-themed works which sprung out of the mid-19th century, Henri Murger's "Scenes de la vie de Boheme," and musicalized them into an opera that has not only stood the test of time but been adapted itself into such modern media as Broadway's rock musical Rent.
La Boheme has little traditional story "arc," for better or worse. We get a disparate group of artists, musicians and writers, chief among them Rodolfo, a poet and playwright, and several of his compatriots, all of whom traipse in and out of a frigid Paris garret. Through happenstance, Rodolfo meets a comely downstairs neighbor, Mimi, who it turns out is slowly dying of tuberculosis. There's another pair of starcrossed lovers, Musetta, a singer, and one of Rodolfo's friends, painter Marcello. Through the four acts of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto we see the friends forge new relationships, fall in and out of love, and variously live through the vagaries of the bohemian lifestyle. If there's one qualm I've always had with this opera, it's that the tragic love affairs never really say anything cogent about the human condition generally. In "Romeo and Juliet," for example, we get at least a taste of what senseless internecine warfare can breed, but "La Boheme" features no such lessons, unless you consider depictions of what results from choosing an artistic lifestyle that breeds little if any income (not to mention having the misfortune to come down with a deadly disease with no money to pay for medicine) a life lesson. The libretto does offer some structural nuances, notably a first and fourth act which mirror each other, but don't go into this piece looking for philosophical truths revealed.
What you get instead is a nonstop carnival ride of Puccini's elegant and glorious music. If you're not a fan of opera, there's no better place to start than Puccini's "La Boheme." A virtual riot of unending melody and orchestral invention, this opera sings like few others before or after. When you consider the fact that there's even something akin to a Top 40 hit in its score, Musetta's coquettish "Quando m'en vo," you know you're going to get tunes you can recognize wrapped in some sumptious orchestrations that are ceaselessly brilliant.
This specific production is highlighted by a star turn by Inva Mula as Mimi (Mula provided the singing voice for the blue alien in The Fifth Element). With her doe eyes and upturned eyebrows, Mula inhabits Mimi's tragic soul and thankfully doesn't overplay the coughing episodes, as is the wont of some of the more histrionic Mimi's. She also brings a nicely burnished timbre to her singing, with some achingly beautiful passages. Aquiles Machado brings a bit of a hint of a younger Pavarotti to his interpretation of Rodolfo. If he's not quite up to Pavarotti's level, he does a generally fine job, with some just occasionally raspy tones marring his overall performance. Laura Giordano certainly looks the part of the sultry Musetta, but she's vocally the weakest of the leads, with a sometimes strident upper register which is unfortunately utilized repeatedly in Puccini's stratospheric soprano arias. Fabio Maria Capitanucci makes for a strapping and invigorating Marcello, with a full-bodied tone and incredible control.
The physical production, as noted above, is extremely handsome, with some impressive sets and colorful costumes. Television coverage is mostly excellent, with a multi-camera array able to capture the entire proscenium for choral numbers while also being able to single out a soloist at important times. This is indeed a cinematic presentation and one which features some superb orchestral accompaniment to some generally top tier vocalizing.
The Blu-Ray Disc
This 1081i/MPEG4 AVC transfer looks generally quite sharp, though it is hampered by its very context--a live theater performance, sometimes with very minimal lighting. That said, black levels are strong and consistent and colors and contrast generally superb. If there's nothing really great to write home about, there's also little if anything to really complain about.
I was a little underwhelmed by both the PCM 2.0 and 5.0 soundtracks. While they're generally robust, with the 5.0 especially showing some great separation between orchestra and singers, there was also an annoying and intermittent distortion in some of the lower range. It's nothing too horrible, but if you're an audiophile, you'll most likely hear some problems once or twice. Overall fidelity and clarity is excellent, if nowhere near HD or lossless quality. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles available.
This Blu-Ray contains some nice bonus features, including a narrated synopsis, a fairly useless cast gallery, and a better featurette with interviews with the cast and production crew. There's also a nice insert booklet, as noted above.
This impressive production of La Boheme is visually overwhelming at times, and gorgeously sung, especially by Mula. If it's not really a standout Blu-Ray release, in terms of high definition content, it's certainly a worthy production of this venerable opera and deserves to be seen and heard. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet