La Scala Shows There’s Still More Mileage In Zeffirelli’s Bohème

La Scala, Milan, June 7, 2017—Zeffirelli’s superannuated production of La bohème returned to La Scala–yet again. From the naive slapstick to the bonnets-and-cravats period tack, this is aged opera at its tritest–a production one imagines must have felt a little fresher when it opened at this house more than half-a-century ago. But Zeffirelli’s conception is so familiar that during performances it can largely be ignored, thus allowing for unimpeded consideration of the singers. These were therefore ideal conditions for full appreciation of Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was making her La Scala debut with a role that has catapulted her to fame at the New York Met and Royal Opera House.

A good many operatic Olympians have graced this Bohème–including Karajan, Kleiber, Pavarotti, and Freni–which means comparisons between the latest crop and those from days of yore are almost inevitable. And Yoncheva compared favorably. The soprano combines clear diction with a rare solidity of technique, with the result that her even, luminous sound was easily audible even over Puccini’s busiest orchestral textures. This was the case even when she spun flickering warmth into the faintest of pianissimos.

Admittedly, Yoncheva sometimes left us wanting greater interpretive depth and more nuance–the switch from damsel demure to genuine allure on the words “ma quando vien lo sgelo” in “Si mi chiamano Mimi” needed more rapture–yet so gorgeous was her singing overall that this hardly mattered.

But no amount of suspension of disbelief could render believable the relationship between this Mimi and Fabio Sartori’s charmless Alfredo. There was not an iota of chemistry between the two characters. As for the tenor’s singing, this provided plenty to enjoy in its own right–not least his top notes, which felt a bit pushed but were properly turned and thrillingly powerful. Sartori’s is not the subtlest portrayal of the role, but the tenor worked hard to provide aural variety, interspersing the full-throttle singing with moments of daring sotto voce.

Zeffirelli’s riotous portrayal of Café Momus is visually excessive for its choreographed pandemonium, multitude of extras and an onstage donkey and horse–and it never fails to impress. The grey backdrop for the attic, on the other hand, remains dour, though colourful interpretations from the likes of Mattia Olivieri’s chippy Schaunard were enough to light up these outer acts. Simone Piazzola’s Marcello was stiff despite the baritone’s valiant attempts to infuse the part with dramatic naturalism, while Carlo Colombara disappointed with a bovine Colline. But Federica Lombardi’s Musetta was a joy. The soprano, formerly trained in La Scala’s youth academy, has requisite chutzpah to bring this sassy character to life.

Evelino Pidò drew a compact and dynamic contribution from the pit–less explosive than with Gustavo Dudamel two years ago, but invested with greater charm and flexibility in the tempos. As long as La Scala can source interesting musicians there is still mileage in Zeffirelli’s Bohème.