The Alagna-Gheorghiu Bohème: let’s just call it an ‘event’

At the General Rehearsal for Les Troyens on Friday (which, by the way, is shaping up to be a fine night), I noted that it was an ‘event’ rather than a performance as such: that way, one can bring some stoicism to bear on the clicking photographers and the talking of the Director in Grand Tier. I have decided that I should apply the same to this performance of La Bohème; to do so mellows how I think of it. Judged as a straightforward performance it would be found significantly wanting, but it was most definitely an ‘event’.

The event, of course, centred on the reuniting of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu on the stage on which they met in 1992 – and in the same opera. Most of the early-Gheorghiu hype focuses on that Solti La Traviata, so it is good to be reminded that that wasn’t in fact her debut. Two performances of La Bohème were scheduled to mark the occasion, at the end of a long run with different casting. The evening was marked by an excess of indulgence, a fatal lack of discipline and a bad cold for the tenor.

Act 1 was the most excruciatingly uncomfortable hour I can recall spending in this theatre for some time. Clearly Jacques Lacombe, standing in for an unwell Maurizio Benini, had not been supplied with the memo in which Gheorghiu detailed her preferences for tempi. A cosmic battle was waged between them for control of the very essence of time. She won, mostly. Alagna’s indisposition had been announced before the Tuesday performance, but no announcement was made this evening and perhaps it should have been. Either way, his repeated discrete attempts to clear his sinuses spoke eloquently. Pitching, especially in the big moments, was wayward much of the time and, whether it was due to the preoccupation with his cold or not, most crucial entries were ill-timed including at such moments as O soave fanciulla. Both were amply able (and in Alagna’s case, despite that cold) to project the quality and beauty of tone for which they are justly famed, but perhaps a concert would have been better than a staged performance. At Gheorghiu’s wilful tempi, one began to wonder if the ROH had packed enough snow to get us through Act 3?

Act 2, with its busy ensemble, fared a little better. Perhaps Lacombe felt better able to manage its complex multiple components than he had a single wilful diva in Act 1. Acts 3 and 4 were better still. Alagna’s moments came in shorter bursts, seemingly, and the push-me-pull-you quality of Gheorghiu’s partnership with the orchestra settled down. The final test of course comes with the death scene at the end of Act 4: Gheorghiu excelled, sensitively timing it and spinning out the beautiful, controlled, diminishing sounds for which she is justly famed. Alagna was less subtle an actor, and slightly overdid things. My damp eyes were due to my persistent hayfever and nothing more.

The supporting cast were able throughout, particularly the bohemians of George Petean, Yuri Vorobiev and Thomas Oliemans, although everyone seemed to be infected by the excitable hyper-activity led by the protagonists. Nuccia Focile’s Musetta sprinkled acid on Quando me’n vo’, but softened her tone in the final act to provide a very touching counterpoint to Mimì. The orchestra sounded more brash than I’ve heard for a while, with some very rasping brass-playing.

Overall, the evening was characterised by a curiously awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere.  Between pawing each other repeatedly, either they were trying too hard, or they were trying too hard to make us think they weren’t trying too hard. Either way, it amounted to trying too hard. It was draining. The audience loved it: proper whooping, flower-throwing, rafter-raising stuff. Like I said, an ‘event’. For the opera, I’d rather have seen and heard Joseph Calleja and Carmen Giannattasio again.

4 comments

  1. Dear Mark, you are excused, you had a hayfever.
    What I’ve heard about this performance was only “Gheorghiu- magnificent”, “a real masterclas in singing Puccini”, “superb Roberto”, “beautiful Petean”, “charm and world class opera.”
    Ok, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

  2. Indeed everyone is, without needing to be ‘excused’ – as I said, the audience went wild. Personally, I can only see glimpses of what for. I have indeed heard others say positive things; I have also heard those sharing similar views to mine. The wonders of live theatre, I guess…

  3. EVENT is indeed the right word. I was baffled at how a knowledgeable audience should have been so wildly enthusiastic about such underwhelming singing by both Mimi and Rodolfo. Alagna was ill: fair enough. But Gheorghiu: you never could hear her at the end of each phrase. The audience cheered celebrity, not the music.

  4. Acts 3 and 4 were wonderful. Earlier in the performance Gheorghiu sometimes sang almost dangerously close to the edge of the stage and abandoned any attempt to integrate into the drama – but in the end I forgave everything and it was devastating.

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