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Finnish National Opera La Bohème

Finnish National Opera
03/10/2000 -  and 12, 14, 16, 21, 25, 29 March, 1, 8, 12, 24 April 2000
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Tove Aman / Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, 1 April (Mimi), Ari Gröntal / Nils Olsson, 1 April (Rodolpho), Marian Sjölander (Musetta), Juha Kotlainen, March / Jaako Kortekangas, April (Marcello), Jouni Kokora, March / Juha Uusitalo, April (Schaunard), Jyrki Korhonen, March / Petri Lindroos, April (Colline), Marko Putkonen (Benoit), Jaako Hietikko (Alcindoro), Jarmo Rastas (Parpignol)
Finnish National Opera orchestra and chorus, Mikko Franck, March / Alberto Hold-Garrido (conductor ), Reto Nickler (director), Anna Ontek (designer), Katharina Weissenborn (costumes)

The opera in Helsinki is by a lake in a park near the centre of the city. Its modern, white building was opened in 1993. It has two theatres (one with 1350 seats) and accommodates the entire staff, about 600 people, and functions of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. Not only is it a wonderful house to visit, but it also offers a near perfect working environment for the artists. Production standards are accordingly high and the companies are international models of their kind. Moreover the companies are well supported by the public. Ninety percent of their working budget is covered by ticket sales. No small achievement in a country with only 5 million inhabitants!

The Finnish National Opera's exciting new production of La Bohème, directed by Reto Nickler and designed by Anna Ontek, intensified the impact of the work by dressing it up in a radical new aesthetic. While the well-detailed drama held few surprises in itself, audiences were constantly stimulated and shocked by what they saw.

The setting was (mostly but not specifically) contemporary. The bohemians were not so much lovably eccentric, as extravagantly weird. Marcello sported a moulting mohair overcoat and threw paint on a large sheet spread across the floor. Schaunard wore a grotesque peroxide wig. Colline walked around wearing sunglasses and clasping a Christmas tree.

Mimi was plain, no (apparent) make-up and short hair, almost androgynous, bursting with sincerity. This was underlined in the second act with the Café Momus entry of a highly contrasted, high glamour Musetta - big blonde hair, long legs, and a gorgeously delivered waltz song during which she stripped down to a little black dress with bare shoulders. Built up around Musetta, the nightclub/cafe was the high point of the production, a chrome-steel scaffolding with (by the end of the act) four distinct levels. There was a lot of highly detailed action, most of it simultaneous, ending up with a snow-storm and a lot of red lighting.

The opera was presented as a continuous drama. Not only were Acts 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 performed without a break, but they merged into each other scenically (for example the Cafe Momus structure turned into a bridge for the following act). This served to maintain momentum.

Given such an inventive production, some things inevitably didn't work. The group of synchronized half-naked snow sweepers in Act 3 was bizarre, and Colline's overcoat was not sold but simply draped on the dying Mimi, a weak gesture contrary to the text.

At the performance on April 1st musical standards were high. Alberto Hold-Garrido was a sensitive and sympathetic conductor, to whom both the orchestra and singers responded well. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg's Mimi was outstanding. A beautifully focussed voice with a wonderful resonance, full of colours. A fascinating, complex sound. Butterfly, Liu, Donna Elvira and Desdemona are in her repertory though based on her Mimi, it would be easier to imagine her as Manon.

Marian Sjölander (Musetta) was the only one of the principals scheduled to sing all the performances in both March and April. She was central to the production and no doubt the ticket sales. Greeted at the curtain by appreciative whistles as well as applause, she was not only a good actress but also had a lovely basic sound. Her italian words, however, were not always as clear as her body language. Jaako Kortekangas was a consistently pleasing Marcello. Nils Olsson (Rodolpho) had some nice high notes, but was not always easy to hear. The rest of the cast were all accomplished, both as singers and actors. None of the all-Nordic cast had much italianita, but then does that matter these days?

Simon Holledge



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