A breakthrough ‘La Boheme’

Art January 08, 2018 01:00

By Janice Koo
Special to The Nation

Pure reading of Puccini underlines Opera Siam's world-class stature



OPERA SIAM, established in 2001 and virtually the most active opera company in Southeast Asia, has seemed a bit off the radar for a couple of years. Major productions have concentrated on the critically acclaimed 10-part “Lives of the Buddha” series. Other productions, while adventurous, were not of standard repertoire works. 

Malcolm Williamson’s “The Happy Prince” and Holocaust-memorial productions of chamber works like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Brundibar” enhanced Opera Siam’s profile as a wide-ranging company willing to tackle rarities and unconventional choices. 

But there hasn’t been a “standard repertoire” production since the much-admired “Magic Flute” a couple of years ago.

Artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul has embarked on a major facelift for the 17-year-old company. The 17th season kicked off late last year at the Thailand Cultural Centre with the most “standard repertoire” piece of all, Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

The production was spectacular in every way – conceptually, musically and in its direction. With an outstanding international cast and musicianship of a high international level from conductor Trisdee Na Patalung and the Siam Philharmonic, this was a production that could have graced any major European house.

With the Paris Opera presenting a “La Boheme” this season – controversially set in outer space, with Rodolfo in a space suit and stark lunar landscapes – it was a relief to find a production actually set in Paris. This Paris was not the Paris of the original, though, but an homage to Chagall’s Paris of the 1920s. 

Somtow, who both designed and directed the production, managed to create the effect of actually being inside a Chagall painting by making the set a collage of many of the French Impressionist’s most iconic masterpieces. Strikingly lit by Ryan Attig and with colour-coordinated costumes by Natthawan Santiphab, this was one of best “look and feel” “Bohemes” this reviewer has ever seen.

 

Somtow directed with a light touch mostly, it appears, allowing the singers’ chemistry to speak for itself. 

And it seems that success was all in the casting here. Mimi was sung by Nancy Yuen, who made Puccini sound like lieder – subtle and nuanced, with the requisite power unleashed only when necessary. Israel Lozano was a passionate Rodolfo, radiating charm. Simon Meadows was an engaging Marcello, singing magnificently. 

Damian Whiteley as Colline was suitably introspective. Newcomer Panuwat Phiansa was a hilarious hyperactive Schaunard. Flanders-based Thai soprano Nadlada Thamtanakom was a silky-voiced Musetta, as vulnerable as she was streetwise. 

The star of the evening was undoubtedly Trisdee Na Patalung, who offered a completely fresh, energetic take on Puccini’s score, blowing away the cobwebs of convention and pulling a glorious rush of sound from the mostly very young Siam Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Probably one of the fastest “Bohemes” in the last hundred years, divested of much sentimental indulgence, this was a performance that served the drama first. 

The first scenes were done with a light touch, enabling the final tragedy to be moving, not mawkish.

Opera Siam has announced it will do all of Puccini’s operas over the next few years, with both “Madame Butterfly” and “Gianni Schicchi” in the cards this season. Not neglecting the epic “DasJati”, two episodes of Somtow’s mega-music drama will premiere as well. 

The term “world-class” is much overused in Bangkok, but this “Boheme” truly put Opera Siam in that category.