Puccini - La Boheme: Madrid/Jesus Lopez Cobos (Opus Arte)

10.02.06
Jesús López-Cobos
musicOMH.com

By SIMON THOMAS

Opus Arte's spectacular new DVD of La Boheme from Madrid is a great reminder of why this is one of the world's most popular operas.

Giancarlo del Monaco's production and conductor Jesus López Cobos' vibrant musical performance make it seem as though you are seeing and hearing the work for the first time.

The staging is about as lavish as you can get. Del Monaco talks in the booklet notes of Puccini "as cinematographer" and this is the principle underlying the production. It's fast-moving and on a grand scale, with a remarkable coup de theatre at the end of Act 1. I thought it was a camera trick but the notes say they did it on stage. Act 1 segues straight into Act 2 - from one set into a completely different one, the change having occurred during Rodolfo and Mimi's duet ("O soave fanciulla"). There is a similar cinematic moment at the very end which, while not being quite so astonishing, lets us see Rodolfo spilling out into the Paris streets in his grief.

There's an enormous amount of detail throughout the opera, with vast sets and an incredible number of props. The street scene of Act 2 allows del Monaco full scope. Here are jugglers, tightrope walkers and even a commedia dell'arte troupe, although I found the beating up of a chauffeur and stealing his car a bit over the top. They even manage a big set change within the very brief second act with an extraordinary scene inside the Café Momus.

Big sets and extras don't make up for poor performances but that's not a problem here. The cast, most of whom I hadn't heard before, are excellent. Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo looks like a cross between a young Pavarotti and Jussi Björling. If he hasn't quite got the beauty of voice of either of them, it is a full-bodied and powerful instrument. Inva Mula as Mimi has a beautiful tone and a great presence. This isn't a simpering Mimi but one who knows what she's doing. In the first act, she even blows out her candle herself in order to move things along.

There's a very impressive performance from Fabio Maria Capitanucci as Marcello and strong support elsewhere. The only small weakness is Laura Giordano as Musetta but only because she's in such good company. She's very pretty and flirty but slightly shrill and wobbly in places, always a danger with this part.

I don't have a lot of criticisms about this performance - there are some unconvincing stage drunks at the beginning of Act 3 but not a lot else that jars. The Madrid Symphony Orchestra is magnificent under Cobos - fresh and rhythmic, really bringing out the beauty of the music.

Despite all the grandeur and money that's been lavished on it, what comes across as the star is the opera itself. I tend to listen to La Boheme these days just to hear particular singers - Bergonzi and Tebaldi or Björling and de los Angeles - but here I just sat back and enjoyed the whole thing. The time flies by while you're watching it and it pushes all the right buttons. I'll admit to having a lump in the throat at the end.

The production was filmed at the Teatro Real, Madrid in March 2006. There's an interesting half hour documentary with the set, which surprisingly is spread over two disks. If you're looking for a DVD of La Boheme, you can't go far wrong with this.