|La Bohème – Aglow with Feeling|
La Bohème staged at Teatru Astra sported a wealth of colour and detail combining elements of period and modern style to field a crowning triumph. It was indeed a beautiful, passionate, and majestic performance. Poignant and fascinating sets, nicely crafted and highly enjoyable music played with zest and delicacy, warm-hearted, fresh and imaginative singing by an excellent cast of singers supported by an engaging and on the spot chorus (not least a finely-trained children’s ensemble), made for two truly memorable performances. It was indeed a superb addition to a glittering array of opera productions which have transformed a nowhere into somewhere as regards the opera milieu. Opera productions of such calibre have really proved that great art can transform nowhere into somewhere with wonderful spinoffs on multiple levels. Such opera productions have become a national asset not to be discarded without incurring severe losses on various fronts. Victoria has become an opera destination of no mean note with a steadily growing international dimension.
La Bohème has emerged as an incontrovertible proof. The magnificent team at the Teatru Astra spearheaded by Joseph Vella set about the delicate and, by all means, daunting task, of making an old warhorse of the opera repertoire sound and look freshly minted. La Bohème has been a case in point. In fact, the challenge has been met with aplomb, panache and gusto to the extent that Puccini’s all-time favourite became an emotional rollercoaster of the first degree. Emotion in the jam-packed auditorium was almost palpable: at the end of both performances there was no dry eye left! Empathy and connectivity between auditorium and stage reached extraordinary levels.
It could not be otherwise. With such a splendid splash of talent, expertise and enthusiasm in abundance, La Bohème rose to unparalleled heights. Immersion in the goings-on was total. One can rightly say that there were no spectators but actors; audience and performers alike were one: one mind; one heart; and a painfully throbbing one at that! Is that not the true purpose of art: transcending all kind of barriers without obliterating one’s individuality, but enhancing it? The contrasting towering climaxes in Act 2 and the final scene of Act 4 displayed unassailable mastery, which in reality was much in evidence throughout. The effortless authority emanating from the podium was inspiring as was the daring concept and fascinating design enriched by the judicious use of digital technology. It is no wonder that the performances were as vital and coherent as the music itself.
The leading duo Miriam Cauchi and Leonardo Caimi were a match made in heaven. No new-comer to the Astra stage, Miriam has grown from strength to strength. Mimì was a perfect fit: beauty and clarity of tone, effortless and nuanced singing, understated yet surging drama sustained throughout to the final heart-wrenching submission to a cruel fate. Caimi’s Rodolfo was sung to the finest and best of the Italian tradition. Possessing a rich voice capable of immense expression, Caimi is a highly intelligent singer supremely suited to the role. Poised and confident, he partnered Miriam Cauchi admirably. They struck the right chord with audience straightaway. The supporting duo made up of an ebullient and madly in love Marcello and the vigorous yet vulnerable Musetta were simply a joy to watch and listen to. Baritone Devid Cecconi, making his Malta debut, is a towering personality with a voice to match. Blessed with a dark yet clear timbre and drawing on abundant reserves of strength, Cecconi is a veritable force of nature! Still, he can harness his powerful voice to an exquisite mezza voce. Oana Andra’s Musetta was a lezione di canto as the cognoscenti would put it! Lithe and agile, taunting and supplicant, Oana Andra was Musetta. Her identification with the role was indeed admirable. In total command of her crystal clear soprano voice, Andra strutted on the stage with gaiety, flourish but never surrendered to cheap histrionics or tasteless exhibitionism. She had grace. She handled the ropes with consummate ease. Other primary roles were taken up with no less finesse and aplomb by Gabriele Sagona (Colline), Louis Andrew Cassar (Schaunard) and Miguel Rosales (Alcindoro/Benoit). Bass Gabriele Sagona is an extremely dignified presence having a deep sonorous voice which he infuses with glowing warmth. His Vecchia zimarra was indeed another jewel in the crown. Louis Andrew Cassar was on a par with the rest of the primari both as regards richness of timbre and stage persona. The interaction with the three down-and-outs in the Latin Quarter captured the Bohemian spirit to perfection. It could hardly have been better. Miguel Rosales as the hapless and unenviable landlord added a comic touch without overstepping the mark. Indeed the leading roles were a most happy choice.
La Bohème may not be the chorus Opera but without a reliable chorus it flops. Those who have come to know by experience the mettle of the Teatru Astra Opera Chorus would have been left in no doubt as to the prowess of this prime asset of which the Theatre is justly proud. The Astra Opera Chorus has set new standards in the local opera productions. It is not only the authentic timbre which is distinctive of this choir, but the extraordinary capacity of the choir to act out the part with nonchalance and aplomb associated with professional choirs of the first degree, that is so hard to emulate. The extremely demanding opening of Act 2 which is a potential minefield was carried off with astounding ease and set the right mood for what was to follow: the brilliant interior of one of Paris’ most vaunted entertainment spots. Maria Frendo, whose name is synonymous with the Astra Opera Chorus, and Mariella Spiteri Cefai in charge of the children’s chorus did a splendid job which contributed in no small way to the over-all scintillating success of La Bohème.
High praise is due to high achievement across the board. Conductor Joseph Vella has proved once more that he is second to none on the Maltese islands. His reading of the Puccini score was inspirational to one and all resulting in a passionate and tender performance reaching great heights of pathos. The response of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra to Vella’s articulate direction was total. Artistic director Enrico Stinchelli has come to mean spectacular shows. Working seamlessly with the fabulous team at the Teatru Astra headed by artist Joseph Cauchi with his assistant Andrew Portelli, and production assistants Antonella Zammit, George Camilleri, Miriam Attard and David Camilleri, the result was sheer magic from the word go. The magic was heightened by the timely projections of MAV Multimedia, and the wonderful play of lights by Nexos overseen by George Zammit. The riot of colour created by the blend of costumes coordinated by Manuel Grima and George Farrugia enhanced the brilliant atmosphere on stage. It was a stunning accomplishment and a gloriously ambitious production.