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Freni's Mimi ravishes Tokyo

New National Theater Opera House
03/03/1999 -  and 5, 6, 7 March 1999
Giacomo Puccini : La Bohème
Mirella Freni (Mimi), Roberto Aronica (Rodolfo), Yasuo Horiuchi (Marcello), Sue Chen Panariello (Musetta), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Colline), Yuichi Toyoshima (Schaunard), Sachio Yamada (Benoit), Katsuji Miura (Alcindoro), Toshiaki Murakami (Parpignol)
The Japan Shinsei Symphony Orchestra, Fujiwara Opera Chorus Group, Tama Family Singers, Stefano Ranzani (conductor)
Beppe de Tomasi (Stage director), Pier Luciano Cavalloti (Costumes)

No 'stills', no 'buts'- Mirella Freni is simply a wonderful Mimi. Tokyo has heard her regularly since a Karajan Verdi Requiem debut in 1979. There are few, if any, better loved singers here. There was a Mimi with Kleiber and (the visiting) La Scala in 1988, Adriana Lecouvrieur with the Bologna Opera in 1993, and Fedora with the same company last year. The voice is large now, but she scales it down and uses it with extraordinary intelligence and artistry, so it remains under perfect control and is capable of considerable sweetness. But the magic is not only in the voice, it is also in the figure. Freni is a committed and very accomplished actress. She believes in what she is doing and the audience believes in her. In 1988 Act 3 seemed to be the focus of her interpretation and that hasn't changed. Freni's Mimi is about trying to live, not about making a melodramatic death.

Roberto Aronica made an adequate figure as Rodolpho. He has a nice ring at top of his voice and there was some beautiful soft singing but the middle register is not so distinctive and seemed strained at times. In contrast, Yasuo Horiuchi (Marcello) sang with a warm, full tone - good diction, good acting. The part suits him perfectly and he gave a very sympathetic performance.

Sue Chen Panariello (Musetta) is a splendid Butterfly/Violetta, a singer who deserves a much bigger career than the one she has to date - but perhaps Musetta is not her role. She made a spectacular entry in the Cafe Momus in a scene-stealing red dress but she sounded strangely shrill and colourless. She should be a much finer Liu in the Tokyo Bunkamura production of Turandot next month.

The most distinguished singer ever to sing a minor role with a Japanese company? Nicolai Ghiaurov (Colline) deserved won the biggest ovation of the evening with his final act aria ('Vecchia zimarra') sung with a full tone, gentle sincerity and humility. Stefano Ranzani gave a warm, straightforward reading of the score, sensitively accompanying his singers.

Beppe de Tomasi presented a theatre of distractions. Some of his ideas are charming - the unexpected appearance of the wife of Benoit, the landlord, threatening her spouse with a rolling pin - but a lot of it seemed contrived to amuse the lowest (and least involved) common denominator in the audience. So the Cafe Momus had a vaudeville show with cancan dancers etc. However his real coup de théåtre came in the last act. During the comic sequence preceding the entry of the dying Mimi, the landlord reappeared with four men to remove the furniture from the garret. The death bed itself was being taken as Musetta entered. Would Mirella have to breathe her last on the floor, we wondered? No, to our relief Benoit relented and left it. A happy ending of sorts.

Simon Holledge



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