In the long history of the Salzburg Music Festival, operas by Puccini had been performed only twice. Why? Because the Salzburg festival is a stuffy affair with sky-high ticket prices, and in those parts Puccini is considered to be a sentimental composer who appeals to the masses. No matter that three of the six most widely-performed operas is history are by Puccini (La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly). If you want to hear them, you can hear them somewhere else.
In 2012, the festival broke the ice for a third time, mounting a production of La Boheme that was captured on film, and the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul ran it on Sunday at St. Anthony Main. It was a beautiful afternoon outside, but more beautiful inside the theater, where Anna Nektrebko, Piotr Beczala, and an otherwise strong cast belted out the love duets and other tuneful arias that are so familiar and yet so moving.
We had seen the new Met production of La Boheme in April (at a movie theater, of course), and I was wondering if I was ready for another dose. The fact that the Salzburg version is set in modern times, with “poets” making DVDs and “painters” using cans of spray paint, might come as a refreshing change; it was inducement enough to give La Boheme another shot.
The sound in the theater wasn’t great, but it was loud, and the magic of Puccini’s orchestration took hold almost immediately. The modern settings made it possible for the set designer to introduce a pallet of truly garish colors, and the torn jeans, ragged t-shirts, white-rimmed sunglasses, and colorful leather jackets did nothing to undermine the powerful musical effects. It was only in the second act, where a Parisian street scene was rendered with model hotels sitting on an enormous Google map of the city, did the update become slightly risible.
As if in compensation, that act was enlivened by the appearance of Musetta, with Nino Machaidze offering us a very modern slant on that character.
Meanwhile, Anna Netrebko played the seamstress Mimi as poor and also less than glamorous, though once again, she made the character fit the music. No opera in the repertoire is more emotional than La Boheme, and Netrebko’s powerful rendering went a long way toward making it all convincing.
In fact, at a certain point it occurred to me that the howling pains of anguished love that pepper the opera had an almost animal quality. The cacophony at the end of act three, for example, when Rodolfo and Mimi and splitting up on one side of the stage while Muesetta and Marcello are having a heated jealous spat on the other, seemed like a primal whorl of chaos…but very pleasant to listen to.
It’s sometimes suggested that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. But this can’t be true, because music is no better or worse than it sounds. The sound is the music.
The Minneapolis / St. Paul Film Society will be bringing in four more operas this fall and winter, to be aired on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. They all sound pretty good. See you there?
The Magic Flute: Oct 21 and 26
Don Carlo: November 18 and 23
Eugene Onegin: December 16 and 21
Romeo and Juliette: January 27 and February 1