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Andrew Quint
Fanfare, January 2009

When a new format hits the street, it makes sense that the most familiar program material is chosen for initial releases. Remember the compact disc in the early 1980s? Lots of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies, plenty of Four Seasons and Planets. So now that the Blu-ray Disc, DVD’s successor, has broken into the classical sphere, it’s hardly a surprise that La bohème is an early entrant. Technically, this disc will knock your socks off. More on that in a minute. But what may surprise you is that, for the second time this year (Telarc’s CD/SACD Bohème from Atlanta, led by Robert Spano, was the first) we have at hand a performance of this way-too-available work that’s musically vital, moving, and ultimately quite memorable.

Director Giancarlo del Monaco has moved the opera’s Paris setting ahead about 60 years to the “pre-industrial” 1890s, which increases the sense of the bohemians’ isolated, marginal existence. The hyper-realistic sets are a feast for the eye, even though there are details adding to the gritty verisimilitude that may be more than some really need: upon arriving at the garret, Schaunard takes a dump (thankfully, behind a curtain!) and a supernumerary drunk vomits into a trash can at the outset of act III. What really makes this production more verismo than usual, though, is the truthfulness of the characters’ interactions. The four roommates are believable as kindred spirits who really care about each other, and Marcello and Musetta have one of those relationships in which the intensity with which they fight is a measure of their enduring affection. Rodolfo and Mimì’s love at first sight feels plausible here, and not some opera-house conceit.

Many members of the young and unfamiliar cast are Spanish artists, and there isn’t a weak singer among the principals. Aquiles Machado’s tenor is firmly supported, flexible, and appealingly textured, a pleasure both loud and soft (and when he sings softly, he doesn’t croon.) As Mimì, Inva Mula sounds young and vulnerable, but not helpless. “Si. Mi chiamano Mimì” is tender and touching, with beautifully floated high notes. Top marks also go to Laura Giordano, who possesses a sweet, focused, and appropriately coquettish voice—and looks the part of a world-class cockteaser, to boot.

Jesús López-Cobos lavishes great care on the orchestral contribution, creating a luminous glow and adding immeasurably to the dramatic sweep of the production. His efforts are captured spectacularly well. This is an area where the Blu-ray medium delivers in a way that standard DVD cannot. The audio is PCM—the bit-rate and sampling frequency isn’t specified, but it’s clearly high-resolution—and, especially in surround, the detail, timbral truthfulness, and spatiality are breathtaking. At the start of act III, voices clearly emanate from a building on stage, while the sound from the orchestra defines the space that we, the audience, occupy. Your fellow audience members, by the way, are exceptionally well behaved, withholding their applause until the end of acts II, III, and IV. (Thanks to an ingenious theatrical device, the first two acts run into each other without a break.)

Visually, the high-definition picture communicates the highly contrasted lighting of the production. The cold light of act I really does feel like late afternoon on December 24th. The sets are extravagantly decorated, and there’s more stage business than you can possibly take in the first time around—jugglers and acrobats at the Café Momus—yet the design doesn’t seem bloated or ostentatious, as some of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met productions can. Subtitles are provided in English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. In addition to a “cast gallery” and plot synopsis, there’s a 25-minute “Reflections” feature. The conductor, director, Mula, and Machado offer observations about this production and La bohéme in general, some pretty mundane, others moderately interesting.

For the opera videophile who has taken the plunge with Blu-ray, this release is an obvious early acquisition.

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