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La Bohème at Bel Canto in Barga

For two wonderful hours, a large and enchanted audience had a love affair with Bel Canto’s fine cast, laughing uproariously or weeping without shame through every classic aria in every improvised scene.

 

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone who left last night’s performance of La Boheme without a tear in the eye and echoes of sheer musical pleasure in the heart. Presented by Sally He Li’s Bel Canto in Barga company at the Teatro dei Differenti, the production was not technically perfect in the sense that La Scala or Covent Garden might aspire to — and that was its greatest strength. It offered the simple but powerful intimacy that local opera enjoyed in Italy when La Boheme’s composer, Giacomo Puccini, was growing up in Lucca.

 

For two wonderful hours, a large and enchanted audience had a love affair with Bel Canto’s fine cast, laughing uproariously or weeping without shame through every classic aria in every improvised scene.

Fans of Puccini couldn’t have asked more from the principals, Chiara Giudice as the impoverished seamstress Mimi, and Portuguese tenor Alberto Sousa as the tormented poet Rodolfo, whose unreasoned jealousy only lifts when he realizes that Mimi is fatally ill. Their voices and timing were close to faultless, a remarkable achievement given the scant two days’ rehearsal time preceding opening night. It helped that Ms. Giudice is extraordinarily beautiful and emotive, a true diva in the tradition of Maria Callas, and that Mr. Sousa boasts a wide range of dramatic skills as well as a deeply resonant command of Puccini’s score.

 

Puccini understood that the tragic theme of La Boheme, which culminates in the death of its heroine, needed comic relief to offset the weight of melancholy. The Livorno soprano Bianca Barsanti met the challenge splendidly. Barsanti’s Musetta, best friend and confidante of Mimi, is a rollicking creature of the Parisian demi-monde, always oversexed and often inebriated. As her sometime lover Marcello, a down-and-out painter who hides a soft heart behind a witty cynical facade, the American baritone Ryan Hugh Ross provided the evening’s most subtle acting and vocal interpretation.

 

And then there was the unexpected sensation of Alcindoro, the wealthy but gullible French official who is Marcello’s rival for the attentions of Musetta, when he is not flirting with the charming young waitress portrayed by Corina Faluta Stefanescu. In a non-singing role with just a few spoken words, Giovanni Togneri — the bearded barista and natural comic from Caffe Da Aristo in Barga’s centro storico — brought down the house.

 

Dario Tondelli excelled at the pianoforte as the production’s one-man orchestra and de facto conductor, sounding the crucial notes that guided the singers through their parts. Ms. Li’s judicious editing of the longer original libretto kept the plot moving at exactly the right pace. She also wisely created narrator roles for Barga’s Tom McCluskey and Valeria Belloni, who respectively introduced the story in English and Italian.

 

If Sally He Li’s Boheme wasn’t La Scala, with its stratospheric ticket prices and stodgy pretensions, it was something more unusual: a brilliant harkening back to the day when nearly all Italian communities of a few thousand people (and some far smaller) built and filled the seats of their own opera houses.

There are at least six of those theatres within 30 minutes’ drive of Barga. One of them, in the remote mountain village of Vetriano, measures a scant 70 square meters. Their inspirational model is our own Teatro Dei Differenti, which pioneered the revival of local opera under the leadership of English expatriates Peter Hunt and Gillian Armitage, who oversaw the 1967 restoration of the now 320-year-old Differenti and established the annual Opera Barga festival.

 

Bel Canto Barga, which in its first season includes a concert series as well as two La Boheme performances, builds on that pioneering effort. It proves, with local volunteers and the barebones yet marvellously evocative sets of Benjamin Hunt (son of the Opera Barga founders and brother of its president Nicholas Hunt), that an unforgettable evening at the theatre isn’t contingent on vast sums of money.

 

It’s the music that counts in local opera. It’s the intimacy of an audience — and a stage — populated with your butcher and baker and their families, your favorite barista and your nextdoor neighbours. It is the experience of art in a living community, unembarrassed to laugh out loud in public and unashamed to weep.

 

The festival continues through four more events, with a second performance of La Boheme on September 12 and a gala finale on September 13.

 

 

 

 

Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).

 

 

 

 

 

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