Music of Puccini’s La Bohème an Everlasting Favorite

Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) opera La Bohème is a favorite in the Italian opera repertoire. Is it the music, the story, the costumes that draw large crowds to each production? Whatever the attraction, a piece of it will remain with you long after the performance.

If you are not a huge fan of opera and you have never attended a live performance, this is one I always recommend to an opera newbie. Puccini is a bit lighter and graceful in the music than other composers and somewhat more serious in his opera than say, Mozart.

Puccini’s opera (based on a story by French novelist Louis-Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème, with the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica) is focused on four bohemians living in Paris in mid-19th century. Rodolfo, a poet, falls madly in love with Mimì, a seamstress, when she knocks on his door to ask for a light for her candle. Mimì is ill with consumption (tuberculosis) and during the course of a few months, they break up several times crying jealousy, when the real cause is Rodolfo’s fear of dealing with Mimì’s advancing illness. In the midst of this turmoil is Marcello, a painter and Musetta, a singer, who also break up several times because of Musetta’s lack of self-control around men, especially those with money. Everyone comes together in the last act and all sins are forgiven when Mimì returns to Rodolfo after living with a wealthy man at Rodolfo’s insistence. She is dying and she prefers to do so in Rodolfo’s arms.

Throughout the opera, the audience knows the inevitable. You still cannot help but fight back the tear that forms in your eye at Mimì’s death and Rodolfo’s plaintive cry, “Mimì! Mimì!” And you might find yourself wondering what would have happened to the two doomed lovers if Mimì had lived. I suppose then, after all, it wouldn’t be an opera.

The music of La Bohème is wildly popular and its theme has carried on in movies and musicals. The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s performance on Saturday night chose a different route in regard to the setting, opting instead for Paris in 1938* and using scenery originally created for New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and Houston Grand Opera. So if you were hoping for 19th century, it was a bit of a surprise. And while the setting allowed for a different feel of the story, the music remained the same. The orchestra, under Maestro Fabio Mechetti’s direction, knows how to bring the elegance of Puccini to life. The scenery used for the garret in Acts I and IV was much like a box and unfortunately muffled the singers so that you had to strain a bit to hear them. However, the stronger vocals rippled through the music hall well.

Dinyar Vania as Rodolpho and Inna Dukach as Mimi in "La Boheme."

Those who knew the opera were, I suspect, in expectation of particular arias (solo pieces of music). First is Rodolfo and Mimì’s introductory songs. In “Che gelida manina,” Rodolfo (incredibly sung by Tenor Dinyar Vania), sings: “What a frozen little hand, let me warm it for you,” a phrase that remains a constant throughout the story. “Who am I? I’m a poet. What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.” But we were awaiting the tenor’s phrase “la speranza!” (“taken by hope”) and Dinyar’s booming voice shook the hall’s rafters and floated tenderly upon us with his delicate final phrases: “Or che mi conoscete, parlate voi, deh! Parlate. Chi siete? Vi piaccia dir!” (“Now that you know all about me, you tell me now who you are. Please do!”) The audience responded with a roar of applause and Dinyar became an instant favorite.

Mimì, sung by Soprano Inna Dukach, returned with her own song of introduction in “Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes. They call me Mimì.”) Inna captured the delicate voice of the character: “I embroider linen or silk, at home or outside. I’m contented and happy, and it’s my pleasure to make roses and lilies…I live alone, quite alone there in a little white room.” But it was her “Il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!” (“April’s first kiss is mine!”) that pierced our hearts which were then softened with her tantalizing “il profumo d’un fior” (“of a flower is so sweet”). Inna seized the notes remarkably. She held onto them with just the right pitch then softly rolled them along her tongue as if pulling a pearl necklace from her throat. The audience again responded with rapt applause.

Soprano Yali-Marie Williams as Musetta held Act II in the palm of her hand. Her voice was impeccable and her theatrics were superb. Her animated performance of “Quando men vo”: “When I walk out alone along the street, all the people stop and stare, and seek out all my beauty from top to toe,” thrilled the audience so that they could not restrain their applause, despite Maestro Machetti’s hand waving from the pit for them to wait since the song flowed into the next piece without hesitation.

And then there’s the good-bye song in Act III Mimì sings to Rodolfo, “Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido,” asking him to send along her things except for the pink bonnet he purchased for her. “Se vuoi…serbarla a ricordo d’amore!” (“If you want to, keep it as a souvenir of our love”) she expresses in a dramatic tone that stabs us to the core. “Addio, addio senza rancor” (“Goodbye, goodbye—and no hard feelings!”) Inna’s strong, sweet tone let everyone know feelings would be crushed.

The Jacksonville Symphony performed to a packed theater from the very young to the more mature set of ones who, after 116 years, still adore Puccini, a good story and fabulous music.

*For more on the Jacksonville Symphony’s 1938 setting, click here

What about you? What do you enjoy about Puccini or La Bohème? Or opera in general?

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performance:
Feb. 16 – 18, 2012

Brahms Fourth Symphony
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
with
: Cellist Tahirah Whittington, Pianist Terrence Wilson and Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Brahms: Symphony No. 4

More La Bohème:
April 19, 21 & 24, 2012

Pacific Symphony, Calif.

May 4 & 5, 2012
Opera Grand Rapids, Mich.

July 15 – Aug. 12, 2012
Central City Opera, CO

 

Posted in Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Opera, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Inon Barnatan Captures Grace of Tchaikovsky at JSO Concert

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 44 in G major is not considered as popular as his first concerto. However, in terms of technicality and exquisiteness, it is an amazing piece. It is only fair of me to start off by saying I am partial to the piano, so naturally, I am more keenly going to home in on the skill and virtuosity (superb technical ability) of the pianist.

Pianist Inon Barnatan

Watching Inon Barnatan perform this past weekend with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra was like observing the art of making wine. You need just the right amount of fruit, texture and color to create something fine for the palate. It was clear Inon has the ability to perform Tchaikovsky with the precise level of color, texture and smoothness to create a sound that carries through the depths of our hearts. His technique and virtuosity shows he understands the music by his ability to showcase the composer’s mood and desires.

The work had been revised and even Tchaikovsky himself made revisions in this concerto, but Inon performed it in its original luster.

The piece also allows the pianist to shine and Tchaikovsky endeavored to separate piano and orchestra as much as possible. The piano is the feature, but so is the pianist himself. The music requires a bit of athleticism and Inon lives up to the task. He was in perfect shape to pull off this challenging composition.

The second movement, “Andante non troppo,” is rather fascinating because it is written like a triple concerto with solo parts for violin (performed eloquently by Concertmaster Philip Pan who drew out the “romance” of this concerto) and cello (performed by Principal Alexei Romanenko, as equally mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful) followed by the piano. Inon rather “glided” in the movement, as though moving across the dance floor to a slow, flowing waltz, until finally all three waltzed together in a sort of chamber-esque feel (or small ensemble).

The physical attributes are once again displayed in the third and final movement, “Allegro con fuoco” and even Inon’s facial expressions and body movements gave rise to his delight in the music. With his nimble fingers flying across the keys, dancing as if they were mere water droplets bouncing off the plastic keys, his skill revealed more. His fingers were well exercised and methodically and strategically placed to execute a brilliant set of measures in this rousing finale.

The audience could not hold back from its applause before the final notes had been played in Inon’s breathtaking and compelling performance.

(click here for my interview with Inon Barnatan)

The JSO performed another fabulous composition, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) Capriccio espagnol, op. 34. The piece is written in five brief variations. Although the music begins with a stirring 60-second introduction (“Alborada”), it flows gently into a soothing melody (“Variazioni”) before coming back to it’s opening (“Alborada”).

The violin is given another opportunity to shine solo (“Scena e canto gitano”) and Philip Pan takes the task to heart with a brief interlude, accompanied by the snare drums lightly tapping in the background. Many of the instruments, such as the flute, harp and cello, also have occasion for brief solo moments in this variation. It is always a joy to see orchestras showcasing their own musicians.

This lively melody is rather gypsy-like in its tone and there is a definite dance feel to this piece, heard especially in the last variation (“Fandango asturiano”).

Have you heard Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto? Seen Inon Barnatan perform? Tell us about your experiences.

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performances:
Feb. 11, 2012

La Bohème
with
Soprano Inna Dukach and Tenor Dinyar Vania

Feb. 16 – 18, 2012
Brahms Fourth Symphony
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
with
Terrence Wilson, piano; Kelly Hall-Tompkins, violin; Tahirah Whittington, cello
Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Upcoming Inon Barnatan Performances:
Jan. 31 – Feb. 14, 2012

European Tour with Alisa Weilerstein

Feb. 26 & 27, 2012
Lincoln Center

March 3 – 5, 2012
Saint-Saëns: Concerto for Piano No. 2 in G Minor, op. 22
Oregon Symphony

March 20, 2012
Midwestern State University (Wichita Falls, TX)

March 28, 2012
Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.)

Posted in Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Pianists, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Interview: Pianist Inon Barnatan

Pianist Inon Barnatan has continued to impress music enthusiasts around the world for the last two-plus decades. The Israeli-born musician has an extensive repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky.

Pianist Inon Barnatan

The 32-year-old cannot quite pinpoint when he’s been performing professionally because, well, he’s been performing since he was a child. He made his orchestral debut at 11 and somewhere between lessons and performing in the classroom, the concert stage appeared and he has continued to amaze audiences.

He has one solo album of Schubert’s piano works, another one due out this year—Darknesse Visible—and a collaborative work of Beethoven and Schubert with violinist Liza Ferschtman. He’s scheduled to perform for Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series in February following a European tour with cellist Alisa Weilerstein (with whom he’s performed before, though this will be his first European tour with her), will give more performances in Israel, the Spoleto Festival USA and a three-week concerto and recital tour in South Africa in November.

“I’ve been there (South Africa) for holiday and I loved it,” said Inon during a phone interview Dec. 30 before leaving for Israel to perform at the Red Sea Classical Music Festival. He’ll be performing about six or seven recitals in South Africa and will include some of the music from his “Darknesse” CD. Inon is looking forward to his tour and enjoying the staples the country has to offer. “It’s always nice to combine music and my other loves—travel, food and wine. There are few musicians who don’t really love food,” he added.

He’s also stopping in Jacksonville, Fla. for a debut concert with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 20 and 21 to perform Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 44 in G Major. He’s been performing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto for some time, but the second one, he says, is a new discovery for him.

He shared this discovery, as well his thoughts on his upcoming tour, latest CD and why pianist Leon Fleisher (who performed last season with the JSO—check it here) has a lasting resonance with him.

While it’s clear Inon Barnatan (pronounced Ee-non * Barn-ah-tahn) is a serious musician and noticeably accepts his responsibility to showcase the great compositions of long ago and today during his performances, he has a relaxed manner about him. Still, he does not hesitate to allow his thrill for music to overflow in conversation.

JML—You’ll be performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the JSO. Tell us about this piece and what you enjoy most.
IB—
First, I really love it. It’s such a delight, a treat, to play a piece so few people know. It’s like discovering a new repertoire—you have to dig and find the composers and learn their tricks. Tchaikovsky is a well-loved and known composer, yet this concerto is rarely played. Perhaps it’s not as catchy as his first concerto, but it’s wonderful music and it’s a treat to be able to perform. It’s one of those concertos that makes a pianist feel like a “real” pianist. It’s virtuosic with a capital “V”—I sometimes have visions of the old cartoons with different characters playing the piano and their fingers are flying. My “meat and potatoes” are the great concertos by Brahms and Beethoven, but it’s a real joy to play pieces written with concert or performance in mind. They are fun for both the performer and the audience. Tchaikovsky’s concerto is unapologetically a showpiece, meaning it’s virtuosic and joyful and contains writing on a large scale. But it also has tender and lyrical moments, namely the expansive slow movement.

JML—It’s been said that this concerto requires a bit of athleticism and that it’s more demanding than Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Are there particular challenges that you had to overcome when you first learned the piece?
IB—
Work and work. It is quite challenging and it requires a lot of practice time. But besides the technical challenge, it’s a question of sound. One has to produce a sound that’s both heavy and light at the same time. It’s different to the sound that one would use for a Brahms, Ravel or Haydn concerto (all of which I am playing and practicing at the moment). One challenge for me is to switch gears, both musically and technically, so that each piece has its own unique sound world.

JML—What do you hope the audience will take away from this performance?
IB—
It’s a very uplifting and dazzling piece. I hope that people come out liking the “other” Tchaikovsky concerto. I’m performing it in its full version with its uncut second movement, which is basically a triple concerto with very extensive violin and cello solos. I guess some pianists didn’t like to share the limelight and it’s partly for that reason that even in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime the movement was edited drastically, with Tchaikovsky’s approval, by eliminating the cello solos and violin and cutting it in half. I’m looking forward to hearing the original version with the principle violinist (Philip Pan) and principle cellist (Alexei Romanenko) of the Jacksonville Symphony.

JML—You have an extensive tour schedule coming up. What are you looking forward to in your tour with cellist Alisa Weilerstein?

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Jamie Jung)

IB—Alisa and I are spending just over two weeks together from the end of January until mid-February, starting in Israel, my home country. I’m bringing her and a couple more musicians for a concerto evening, as well as some chamber music. Then we’ll begin our recital tour in Europe. It will be a very intense period, but I’m looking forward to it. We’ve played together before, but this is our first duo tour. We’re very good friends and we love playing together, but we’re both used to touring primarily on our own and it’s nice to get a chance to travel and play together in a more concentrated way. We’re also planning a concerto tour in 2013, so hopefully we won’t get sick of each other quite yet.

JML—Your CD – Darknesse Visible – will be coming out soon. What inspired you in your creation of this album and to choose the particular pieces you perform on it?
IB
I’m particularly interested in inspiration and how different composers are influenced by non-musical art forms. As an interpreter, I approach a piece and try to understand it and channel it. I’m interested in how composers approach that process, how they channel a poem or a story, for example. All the pieces on the album are inspired by literature and poetry and they all explore light and darkness. That was another interesting thing for me. The way all of those composers are fascinated, like many artists before, in the dark side of literature. The music is phenomenal and the pieces relate to each other not only thematically, but also musically. Programming is a torturous thing, so it’s nice when, as a performer, you feel that a program makes sense on more than one level. The more I play this program and listen to it, the more connections I find between these pieces.

JML—What do you hope others will take away after listening to it?
IB—
I hope that the CD helps tell the stories in each of these masterpieces. Besides the fact that these are beautiful and bewitching pieces on their own, I hope that listening to them in this context helps enrich each of the pieces and present them in a slightly different light.

JML—Your bio mentions that pianist Leon Fleisher was “an influential teacher and mentor” and that after he invited you to study and perform Schubert sonatas as part of a Carnegie Hall workshop, the experience had a “lasting resonance” for you. Can you elaborate on that?
IB—
Fleisher has been a very significant influence on me. First of all, he’s one of the great pianists of the 21st Century. But he is also one of the most influential teachers. I think one of the reasons is that he teaches how to approach a piece of music, rather than how to play it. Similarly to the “teach a man to fish” proverb—when you learn as a young musician how to think about a piece of music, you can apply that continuously throughout your life. He would be the first to acknowledge that he himself had the same experience with his teacher, the great Artur Schnabel.

JML—Are your Lincoln Center performances a first? What is going through your mind as you prepare for these performances?
IB—
I am lucky that Lincoln Center has been one of the venues I’ve played in most in the United States. I am a guest artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, I have been awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant from Lincoln Center in 2009 and I have performed in Lincoln Center dozens of times, but each time is very special. Just walking into that plaza is inspiring and it’s nice to feel at home somewhere so special.

JML—You reside in a converted warehouse in Harlem. Tell us about your place! How does the design of it help in your practice?
IB—
It is very hard to find a space in New York City that will fit a concert grand Steinway and even harder to find one that will do so comfortably and where you can practice without disturbing your neighbors! I was very lucky to find this place and it’s fun to live in such a vibrant and evolving neighborhood. My apartment used to be a speakeasy back in the ‘20s, so I like to think there are some Jazz-era ghosts floating around.

For samples of Inon’s music, click here

Upcoming Performances with Inon Barnatan:
Jan. 20 & 21, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 31 – Feb. 14, 2012
European Tour with Alisa Weilerstein

Feb. 26 & 27, 2012
Lincoln Center

March 3 – 5, 2012
Saint-Saëns: Concerto for Piano No. 2 in G Minor, op. 22
Oregon Symphony

March 20, 2012
Midwestern State University (Wichita Falls, TX)

March 28, 2012
Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.)

Posted in Interviews, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Pianists | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment