For whatever reason, La bohème and I have just never got on. I know the rest of the world loves it madly, and believe me, I have tried but it is no use. From "Sono andati" to the end is fantastic, the rest leaves me cold or at best lukewarm. Go ahead and judge me, but I can't do anything about it. It does become a bit more tempting with one of my special favourites singing in it, I admit. Aldo di Toro as Rodolfo, Mirella Freni, Cheryl Barker or Antoinette Halloran as Mimi — I can't deny these are attractive prospects, but even they can't make me adore the opera as a whole. I'm sorry.
And this weekend's HD broadcast didn't even offer such a lure. My relationship with Angela Gheorghiu has never been a very happy one. Her singing has never moved or amazed me, and her antics and interviews don't exactly cast her in a very appealing light. Just as with La bohème itself, thousands adore her and for me it just isn't a happening thing.
Until today. Sort of. There was something strangely compelling and attractive about her Mimi. Strangely is the operative word. Hers was an unusual Mimi; maybe not a Mimi at all. She made vague mention of Murget during her intermission interview as her precedent for a less than pure and innocent portrayal of Mimi — that's as may be, but I suspect her characterisation was less about fidelity to the source and more about Angela doing what she was in the mood for. And yet, this is all a bit beside the point. I found her fascinating and really quite lovely. I felt myself falling under her spell, in fact.
But I also felt that I could see her casting that spell. She's a good actress but there's no way she's going to get lost in a character — Angela is first and foremost Angela, and that means a diva in the old fashioned and grandest sense. I think she knows exactly what she's doing — every turn of phrase, every vocal climax, every delicate, pathos filled gesture and adorable smile, it's all of it calculated to make her audience adore her. Somehow, though, seeing all this happen doesn't do much to lessen its effect. I knew I was being manipulated, but it still worked — in an odd way, seeing the mechanism of diva at work just added to its potency.
So the upshot of all this contradiction is that almost despite myself, I loved every minute of Angela's Mimi. She was downright strange, but mesmerising, and her voice, which has never moved me before, suddenly seemed the most gorgeous, fascinating sound this performance had to offer. But it was her performance I loved. The rest was harder to be bewitched by. Her interview with Renée Fleming was bizarre — like watching Betty interview Veronica. She seemed determined to show how much she adored Renée and to be as flamboyant and quirky as possible but it was all a bit undignified and insincere. She returned from her between-act curtain calls and every time played up for the camera, but it seemed a studied attempt to be adorable, a conscious imitation of the faces Anna Netrebko made for the camera, perhaps. The most telling moment came as the cast prepared for their final curtain call. Ainhoa Arteta stood there actually crying, wiping away tears and obviously trying to gather herself together. Angela breezed past, humming merrily to herself. Ainhoa was emerging from real, sincere immersion in the emotion of the piece; Angela was emerging from a gala night of Being Angela.
The intangible magnetism she possesses does at times overshadow the rest of the cast. I felt this especially in Ainhoa Arteta's "Quando m'en vo" — as vivid as she was, somehow when Mimi joined in at the end, she took over. It almost seemed as if Puccini had written it that way simply because Angela had sent him a message from the future asking him not to let her thunder be stolen outright by such a showy aria. Ramon Vargas seems like a sweetheart and made quite an attractive Rodolfo but was not overwhelming. Ainhoa Arteta made a singularly unlikeable Act Two Musetta but was completely endearing in Act Four, and her vibrant and shiny voice is certainly the kind of voice I like. The rest of Rodolfo's bohemian circle were all very good and plenty of fun, though I couldn't ever shake the impression of a bunch of healthy, well-fed middle aged men who ought to have been living sensible, grown up lives, not huddling in a dingy Parisian flat and acting like teenagers. I'm sorry to use descriptions like "very good" and leave it at that — perhaps they deserve better — but I'm afraid I just can't get ravingly excited. It's La bohème. There it is.
The intermission feature was the same old thing. I adored Renée as always — she's without a doubt the hostess with the mostess. As always, I got teary at the sight of Natalie in the trailer for La fille du régiment. I liked that Joe Clark the technical director was wearing a tie which matched one of the Act Two canopies. I fell momentarily in love with Tatiana Troyanos during her brief appearance in the Zeffirelli montage. And of course, the quotable line of the night came from Maestro (and cartoon Italian) Nicola Luisotti during his chat with Hostess Renée.
Renée: This orchestra could play this opera in its sleep. How do you keep things fresh?
Luisotti: I sleep with them.