La Scala's La bohème has been a constant presence in the theatre's programming after more than half a century and now edges towards its 240th performance. The 1963 production by Franco Zeffirelli is stunning in its cinematic realism and sepia tint, his use of crowds is magisterial, the comedy perfectly nuanced, and the tragedy rips through to the heart. This is everything that you could want a Bohème to be. Add excellent singers, an exciting conductor, chorus and orchestra and the mix is potent.
Let me tell you, attending an opera at La Scala in mid-August is a surreal experience. Arriving from the Ligurian coast to my house in Milan was like returning to Chernobyl. All shops and bars closed, deserted pavements, and parking spaces! There are never any parking spaces! Milan goes on holiday in August and basically just shuts down except for the centre, and even near the Duomo some bars are closed for a couple of weeks. Exceptionally, La Scala is open for business for the 2015 Expo and outside the theatre there was an excited crowd interwoven by men in white tie: the orchestra walking from their hotel to the theatre. La Scala's own orchestra and chorus are on holiday too, so the musicians were flown in from Venezuela, the Simón Bolivar Orchestra and Chorus with their dynamic music director Gustavo Dudamel. Stranger still was walking in to the auditorium, leaving behind the summer heat, and seeing the curtain go up on icy fountains, falling snow and shivering poets. Sitting in front of me, was a shivering lightly-clad tourist – probably not a poet – who hadn't reckoned on the air-conditioning, but she had nothing to do with Puccini's opera.
In the theatre there was an excited buzz, something rare at La Scala as usually there is a large presence of jaded season-ticket holders who have seen it all before and are determined that what is about to happen on stage won't live up to their expectations. But they were all on holiday too and the atmosphere was fresh and frizzante. What happened on stage did live up to my expectations (and, to put things in context, I have seen this production with the wonderful Mirella Freni, Zeffirelli's original Mimi). Maria Agresta is a singer with a firm technique and elegant phrasing who, although she doesn't have the full-bodied voice of the mature Freni, was a very satisfying Mimi. The Rodolfo was an exciting Vittorio Grigolo whose puppy-dog enthusiasm is contagious and suitable to his bouncy interpretation. Vocally, his powerful top is impressive (something he sometimes overdoes) but his piani are touching and even more effective. He is a performer who I am very fond of, with a childlike transparency which recalls Cecilia Bartoli – both during the performance and the curtain calls – which I'm sure can irritate some, but, as we know, indifference is a far worse reaction. His last cry of ‘Mimi' was pushed through with an actor's all-consuming wrath. Not a dry eye…
All the other characters were excellently played by a great company of actors, who also happened to sing, including a physically deft and vocally fine Schaunard from Mattia Olivieri who possesses a cheeky and alluring stage presence, a sombre and solid Carlo Colombara as Colline, and Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello who has been promoted up from Schaunard since the last outing of the opera. Musetta was played by the singer who has the most glorious name in all opera: Angel Blue! She towered over all her colleagues onstage – boy, is she tall – and has a velvety coloratura which is very secure, and eyes and a smile which sparkle like diamonds. The sound from the pit was bold and luxurious under Dudamel's frenetic baton.
If you are in Milan for the Expo, or near Milan for whatever reason, I urge you to go. You won't forget it.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.