Israeli Opera's 'La Boheme' Overly Sentimental?

It’s a shame that no attempt was made to squeeze any relevance out of Puccini’s work, rather than just rely on it as a surefire tearjerker.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Puccini's La Boheme.
Puccini's La Boheme.Credit: Yossi Zwecker
Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

Israeli and international conductor Daniel Oren appears blessed with a God-given gift: understanding Italian opera. Watching Oren conduct “La Boheme” is much more gratifying than watching the dreary stage (this is not meant as a metaphor; the color gray is really quite prominent) or reading the translation of Puccini’s reactionary and morally dubious libretto.

Oren, as usual, gave it his all. At the performance I attended, his hands seemed to reach as far as the tympani to his right and the contrabasses to his left. He rose up high and dove down low, he bellowed and sighed, he clutched his heart and raked his hair as he conducted. This was a man possessed by the opera, who became the opera itself.

And it wasn’t just for show. Every such movement was immediately felt in the response of the orchestra, and so it was possible to hear the best part of Puccini, the orchestra, at its best. Each bar of music seemed to take on a life of its own, and together all the notes blended to form an abstract sonic show brilliantly woven from melodic fragments and motifs by a composer who uses drama as his raw material. Once again, the Rishon LeZion Orchestra was schooled in opera by Oren, and once again it came through with the goods. But there was also something ridiculous about this production, which was all sentimentality without any genuine emotion – and this suits Puccini, who always detracts from his characters' humanity, and who is humorless. If one doesn’t search for some intellectual angle in his operas, they are always in danger of falling into kitsch, as happened here.

One can enjoy the singing as well as the orchestra in this performance, especially the wonderful Maria Agresta in the lead female role (Mimi) and Giorgio Beruggi as her husband, Rodolfo, along with the entire cast. It’s just a shame that, as usual, no attempt was made to squeeze any relevance out of Puccini’s work, rather than just rely on it as a surefire tearjerker.

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