Shanghai/Oren: La Boheme

Date: October 18, 2012
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Production: Damiano Michieletto
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

This Boheme production, co-funded by the Salzburg Festival and the Shanghai Grand Theatre (in association with Shanghai Opera House), premiered in Salzburg earlier this summer. One of the production’s performances became international news when Jonas Kaufmann stepped in at the very last minute to replace the voice of an indisposed Piotr Beczala.

Director Damiano Michieletto reframed the 19th century Parisian story in a contemporary form more attuned to the attitudes and lives of young people today: artists who wear blue jeans, leather jackets and work boots, and shoppers who horde shopping carts. In Scene I, the artists’ garret was a bachelor’s pad of living essentials, trash, and little else. The Latin Quarter of Scene II was depicted as giant Lego blocks, a la Carthage in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens, and was surrounded with projections of animated Google maps. In Scene III, a food truck parked along a snow-covered, desolate highway to nowhere, while drunken party merrymakers stumbled across and towards their way home. When Rodolfo cried out Mimi’s name towards the end in what would be the entire production’s most poignant moment, various background screens were projected with images of fogged-up windows, on which a hand spelled out Mimi’s name. As the orchestra played the opera’s final notes, the hand wiped the name away, as if paralleling heroine’s doomed fate. Several in the audience gasped in tones of sadness.

The production was not without issues. The artists’ garret, spanning the entire proscenium of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, lacked communal intimacy that one would expect in the scene. More troubling, however, was that mechanical scene change began even before Scene I ended, as the background props angled sideways to make room for the Lego blocks while the two leads were deep into O soave fanciulla. These stage movements were visually impressive, and perhaps served to show the spatial and temporal transition from the artists’ private space to the public fanfare. However, these movements also stole much limelight away from the all-important interaction between Rodolfo and Mimi, as well as their beautiful music.

With a crisp but pinched voice, Jose Bros, as Rodolfo, sounded more bel canto than verismo at the beginning, though his voice warmed up enough by Scene III to deliver Puccini’s delicious passages with more dynamic vibrancy and emotion. Fiorenza Cedolins sang her Mimi with a comfortable top and robust dynamics, but with so much power that her galactic voice frequently overwhelmed Bros’s. Marco Caria had a solid outing as Marcello, providing vocal heft and emotive security as Rodolfo’s sidekick. Zhang Jianlu (張建魯), sounding slightly coarse and throaty, came across as composed and thoughtful in Colline’s short but dramatically critical soliloquy. Guo Sen (郭森) outshone all her counterparts as Musetta by phrasing her lines diligently and acting with an impassioned gusto. Dramatically, she was properly giddy and playful in Scene II, and sullen but compassionate in the opera’s final scene. Deservedly, Guo received the most fervent applause at the curtain. This performance was also a homecoming of sorts for Guo — before building a successful career in Europe, she studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was a performer at the Grand Theatre’s grand opening back in 1998. The Shanghai Opera House Symphony Orchestra had moments of brilliance spoiled not only by occasionally unbalanced dynamics in the brass section but also by the overwhelmed lower strings. Daniel Oren’s conducting was akin to dragging an overweight elephant over thick mud, especially in Scene I. Oren also displayed a rough time holding together the tutti passages of Scene II. To his credit, after the intermission and till the end, he managed a brisk pace and fine cohesion.

The October 18 performance in Shanghai marked the official opening of the 14th Shanghai International Arts Festival. As was customary in China, plenty of VIPs showed up and their presence be acknowledged, including the art-loving Hua Jianmin (華建敏), the deputy chief of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and Han Zheng (韓正), Shanghai’s mayor. The opera was preceded by a half-hour, lavish ceremony replete with fancy disco lights, and an a capella group singing bubbly songs of unity and prosperity. The irony could not be more fitting after the opera, when the audience filed back to the subway station nearby and was greeted by dozens of homeless eager to find fleeting warmth and refuge.

Scene 1, La Boheme. Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 2, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 3, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

The homeless, inside the subway station next to the opera house. The similarity between this scene and the last scene of Boheme is profound.