MUSCAT: The starving artists’ attic of “La Bohème” is worlds away from the dazzling palatial surroundings of the Royal Opera House Muscat, but the world premiere of its co-production with Opéra de Monte-Carlo Thursday night made for a magnificent marriage.
What makes this unique is that it is not simply a touring production, which is common to audiences in the Gulf’s new opera houses.
Opéra de Monte-Carlo, founded in Monaco in 1879, created the set in France and shipped it to Muscat by boat over the summer. Joined by an exceptional international cast, it adapted and rehearsed the production in Muscat with 170 of its members, including its orchestra and choir, extras and technicians, for the world premiere in Oman.
“I have great admiration for this country, to be able to do it like that,” said Monaco-born stage director Jean-Louis Grinda in an interview before the show. “It’s a huge challenge to organize, and they achieve it very well. The theater is fantastic. The technical team is amazing, very professional.”
Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi, who Placido Domingo has listed as one of his heirs, dominates in the role of Rodolfo, the writer who falls in love with the seamstress Mimi, performed by Russian soprano Irina Lungu. Together they were an impactful power couple, as witnessed in the memorable duet “O soave fanciulla.”
It would be hard to find a more attractive pairing for Musetta and Marcello than Ethiopian-born Italian soprano Mariam Battistelli and Spanish baritone Gabriel Bermudez, both from the Vienna State Opera ensemble, but they were more than just eye candy. Battistelli sizzled in the showstopper “Quando m’en vo,” otherwise known as Musetta’s Waltz.
While Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” took place in the 19th century, Grinda set this version in Paris in 1946, just after the Second World War. The sets and costumes are reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge-inspired stage production of “La Bohème,” with clever tricks from the cinematic lighting: Clouds drift over the full moon, neon lights flash outside Cafe Momus and snow drifts gently down on a transparent screen. There is one overly long moment during a set change between acts that is masked by a film projected onto a screen of barren winter trees in Paris slowly blossoming as it becomes spring.
With subtitles on individual screens in a panel before each seat, the opera is even more entrancing viewed from the front row. It is so close to the orchestra pit that you could reach out and touch the head of conductor Giuseppe Finzi, whose emotional expressions during the instrumental finale were a performance in their own right.
While Opéra de Monte-Carlo brought “Romeo et Juliette” to Oman three years ago, this was the first such arrangement for the company. And although Grinda is aware of Saudi Arabia’s renewed enthusiasm for the performing arts, he said there are currently no plans for a staging in the Kingdom. “We are not a big house,” he said. “But we always have something to do.”
Besides creating co-productions for operas from San Francisco to Tokyo, Grinda founded a baroque ensemble, Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco, that tours with the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.
There will be one more performance of “La Boheme” on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. It will return to Monaco in January 2020 to be performed in the historic Salle Garnier, the opera house in the Casino de Monte-Carlo. As Grinda pointed out: “All the most important opera singers in the world have sung inside there, so it’s a big honor to be there.”
The Royal Opera House Muscat’s season includes performances by jazz pianist Chick Corea and a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” based on Omani traditions. For more information, go to www.rohmuscat.org.om.