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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Letters from Munich: La bohème

By Joseph So on July 5, 2016

Bayerische Staatsoper: La Boheme (Photo: Wilfried Hoesl)
Bayerische Staatsoper: La Boheme (Photo: Wilfried Hoesl)

Sonya Yoncheva (Mimi), Julie Fuchs (Musetta), Wookyung Kim (Rodolfo), Levente Molnár (Marcello), Andrea Borghini (Schaunard), Goran Jurić (Colline). Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Asher Fisch, conductor. National-theater, July 3, 2016

Of the five operas I am seeing on this Munich trip, there’s a bit of something for everyone. You want a brand new production?  The cutting edge La Juive by Spanish provocateur Calixto Beieto fits the bill.  Contemporary opera is your cup of tea? There’s South Pole, just recently premiered. For the heavy-duty star gazer, there’s the Harteros-Kaufmann-Terfel Tosca. A Wagner addict needing a fix?  The quirky Richard Jones production of Lohengrin is just what the doctor ordered.

But what if you’re a traditionalist feeling deprived in the Regie-driven Bayerische Staatsoper? All is not lost. There are at least three “operatic comfort food” productions that are still kicking. I saw the unforgettable August Everding Die Zauberflöte in 1986, with the genies arriving by hot-air balloon, not to mention trials by real fire and real water. Then there’s the 40+-year-old Jurgen Rose-Otto Schenk Der Rosenkavalier, with a set full of antiques and the most elaborate costumes imaginable.

The third traditional production I’ve seen here is the Otto Schenk La bohème, a production that bears a stylistic kinship to the Zeffirelli extravaganza at the Met, an operatic comfort food nonpareil. It’s completely by the book — predictable, easy on the eyes, and non-challenging. You get a realistic garret, the obligatory Café Momus scene jammed with townsfolk, the only thing missing was the muff to warm the hands of the dying Mimi in Act 4. The Munich audience, as usual, a full house, certainly loved it, as the artists were wildly cheered at the final curtain.

Bayerische Staatsoper: La Boheme (Photo: Wilfried Hoesl)
Bayerische Staatsoper: La Boheme (Photo: Wilfried Hoesl)

The cast was not particularly starry on this occasion, except for Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi. Yoncheva made a splash as Desdemona at the Met last season and is slated to replace Anna Netrebko in the ROH Norma. She was partnered by Korean tenor Wookyung Kim as Rodolfo. Trained as a young artist in Munich and is now in the Ensemble at the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden, Kim has a beautiful, rich and good-sized lyric tenor.  His Che gelida manina was lovely, a rather small high C notwithstanding. He also avoided the C in O soave fanciulla. Yoncheva has a truly lovely lyric soprano, backed by solid technique and used with taste. She gave a winning performance. That being said, it’ll be interesting to see how she fares as Norma, a role that requires more of a spinto, even dramatic soprano voice.  If I were to nitpick, both Yoncheva and Kim didn’t sing with parlando and the requisite portamento that is needed in Puccini. As a result, their Italian diction was correct but not quite idiomatic.

The supporting roles were ably taken. Soprano Julie Fuchs was a saucy Musetta, and she looks every inch the coquette, although there was no diminuendo high B natural at the end of Quando m’en vo, something that should be a requirement. Levente Molnár was also a fine Marcello. In fact, other than Yoncheva, the rest of the cast were Munich Opera ensemble regulars, and it showed in their excellent rapport and stage instincts. Conducting with a sure hand was Asher Fisch, the very fine Israeli conductor, who is taking on a much tougher assignment in the fall, as one of two conductors (the other being Sir Simon Rattle) of the Met Tristan und Isolde in September.

What more can I say about this production that I haven’t already said?  I admit I am a bit of a traditionalist, someone who loved the recently retired Met Ring, the Zeffirelli Boheme and Tosca. But, to my own surprise, I find this Munich Bohème a bit ho-hum. I found myself wanting more — a new take, a quixotic twist, a brave re-imagining.  I suppose even for a traditionalist, a steady diet of comfort food can eventually become a bit, uh, too comfortable.

Read Letters From Munich Part I (Tosca), here , and Part II (Lohengrin), here.

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Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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