Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

october 2007


by Karren Alenier

Luciano Pavarotti (October 12,1935 – September 6, 2007) made his opera career debuts at Reggio Emilia's Teatro Municipale (April 1961), La Scala (April 28, 1965) and the Metropolitan Opera (November 23, 1968) all three times as Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera about passionate love and early death. Washington National Opera under the direction of Polish filmmaker Mariusz Trelinski opened its 2007-2008 with a cutting-edge production of La bohème. The lead singer in the role of Rodolfo was Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo who, according to program notes, "perfected the role of Rodolfo under Maestro Luciano Pavarotti" in preparation for the young tenor's WNO debut.

This reviewer attended the September 17 performance and concurs whole-heartedly that Grigolo not only perfected the role of Rodolfo with the master tenor, but also has earned Pavarotti's torch.  At the end of the show when Rodolfo's lover Mimi (sung movingly by Italian soprano Adriana Damato) dies, the WNO audience was awashed in tears. With tears streaming down her own face and a man loudly blowing his nose behind her companion's seat, the reviewer was corporally shaken by an unknown woman sitting next to her who was sobbing vigorously.


In the WNO program notes, Trelinski was quoted as follows, "I paint operas more than I psychologize them." Paint is an interesting word choice (never mind the made-up word psychologize) because Trelinski has transformed Rodolfo's friend Marcello (sung con brio by Korean baritone Hyung Yun) from painter to photographer-who-also-paints. The Polish director has also chosen rain over snow for this opera set in Paris during the month of December. Like Henri Murger who wrote Scènes de la vie de bohème, the source novel from which La bohème is drawn, Trelinski has interpreted the opera La bohème as artist wannabes who are more interested in creature comforts and public adulation than in perfecting their respective artistic endeavors. After all as Act I begins, Rodolfo willingly burns the manuscript of the play he is working on, telling Marcello that he (Marcello) can't burn the furniture or his painting called "The Red Sea" because a painted canvas stinks if it is set on fire.

In many ways and true to his filmmaking accomplishments, image is what Trelinski pursues. (And yes, he is the director who, in 2006, gave WNO audiences a stylized Kabuki production of Madama Butterfly. For example, when Rodolfo and Mimi are getting to know each other, Trelinski has Rodolfo pick up Marcello's video camera and what Rodolfo shoots is simultaneously projected so that Mimi, telling the story of who she is, becomes larger than life. What audiences have traditionally experienced and grown to expect, if they have seen this opera before, are down-and-out artists who are suffering from cold in an unheated garret in winter with no money to buy food and who are about to experience the death of their young friend Mimi who has tuberculosis. This is not what Trelinski delivers and he is not trying to reverse engineer Jonathan Larson's rock musical Rent.

In the opera, librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa have not made it clear what all the details drawn from Murger's novel mean, making for superficial dialogue that is dismissed as the antics of how young people talk or given short shrift because Puccini's music more than compensates for the silly text. Trelinski seems to have gone the extra mile and read Murger's novel. Appropriately, the surtitle translation to English in Trelinski's production effects a contemporary slang that uses such phrasing as "It's friggin' cold outside" and "that ice queen, Musetta." Yet even with Trelinski synching his production with the original source material and superimposing a contemporary timeframe with its attendant technologies of still and motion picture cameras, the emotional wallop comes through strongly via Puccini's music played passionately by the orchestra under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume and the soaring performances by this cast of young, but highly gifted, performers.


This reviewer never had the opportunity to hear Pavarotti sing Rodolfo, but believes the Francesca Zambello production mounted by the San Francisco Opera in 1988 where Pavarotti sang with his childhood friend soprano Mirella Freni would have been an opportunity of a life time despite Pavarotti and Freni being in their fifties and playing characters in their twenties. Pavarotti was seen and loved more widely than the average opera singer.


Like Beverly Sills, he ventured into pop culture venues such as his 1998 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Still, this reviewer would find it hard to accept that King of High C's would have been able, as Rodolfo circa 2007, to transcend his age and acclaim by greeting his boho mates with high-fives as Trelinski has his cast do. What Trelinski is clearly striving for is a vigorous reach to a younger opera audience. His casting of young singers, an updated timeframe, and the glitzy, decadent scene at the Café Momus all say to hell with what has traditionally been produced and adored.



What will stay in this reviewer's mind about Trelinski's production is Rodolfo hitting the corrugated steel wall in utter grief after he realizes that Mimi has died. The rippling wall, both as an actual event and a metaphoric moment (as in, he hit the wall, meaning he was stopped dead in his tracks), reverberated through the Kennedy Center audience and opened floodgates of emotions. For this reviewer, it was the loss in 2005 of her dear friend poet Hilary Tham, who loved Puccini, took the reviewer in 2001 on a pilgrimage to Puccini's villa in Torre del Lago where the composer kept his La bohème mementos, and played La bohème on the day she was told by her attending doctors that she would die soon. The reviewer showed up unannounced in her friend's hospital room that day as Musetta began singing her well-known aria "Quando M'en Vo." Others in the audience probably were put in touch with their own personal losses, but surely some of the audience had had the pleasure of hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing the part of Rodolfo and Vittorio Grigolo, supported by an exceptionally talented set of cast members, had reminded these weeping audience members of the loss of an extraordinary tenor who had made his career singing Rodolfo in La bohème.

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©2007 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas

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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

october 2007

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