Saturday, November 5, 2005:

La Boheme: a feast for the senses

“You can take this production anywhere in the world”.

This statement, which made the rounds of the packed renovated Teatru Astra, on Thursday, October 27, 2005, sums up beautifully what this production was all about: high standards across the board. An engaging couple, featuring Malta’s internationally acclaimed tenor Joseph Calleja and his endearing wife Tatiana Lisnic, led a boisterous, fun-making and extremely stylish (!) group of down and outs, in the form of the painter Marcello, superb Marco Chingari, the mischievous Schaunard, stentorian voiced Jaki Jurgec, the kind-hearted Colline, formidable Gianluca Breda, and a coquettish, sprightly Musetta, sweet-voiced and provocative Letizia Colojanni.

The principals turned out to be the youngest team which have graced the Teatru Astra boards. They infused the intimate and poignant drama with an exuberance which is typical of the younger generation. The drama alternates between periods of horse-play and merry-making and lightning shafts of impending tragedy, marked by tremendously powerful sweeps of what must be perhaps the most beautifully expressive music ever composed. The inexorable march of ever approaching death, which fells with one cruel sweep the childlike Mimi’ who seems to coated in innocence, creates a tension which is heightened with every passing moment. The artistic director, Joseph Bascetta, who has made a very welcome return to the Astra, has once again proved his worth. Under his direction the inner drama flowed unhampered, yet without the needless histrionics, which is characteristic of second-rate performances. The restraint and controlled emotions rendered the singing still more effective to the final outburst of the anguish-stricken lover-poet Rodolfo, “Mimi’! Mimi’”! After all, what poet worthy of the name has not tasted the bitterness of death, and lived to tell, or sing for that matter, the tale!

Indeed our Rodolfo poured out his love and grief in equal measure in his inimitable, warm, clear timbre which is reminiscent of the great bel canto tenors of the golden age of opera. No wonder that his participation ensures a full house anywhere around the globe. Partnered by his wife Tatiana, who possesses an equally clear and expressive voice which she uses with the consummate skill born of a keen musical intelligence and perfectly-honed technique, this duo were simply mobbed by the delirious patrons whose enthusiasm, which had been held in check throughout the entire evening, ran wild at the end of the opera. It was a unforgettable moment for Joseph and Tatiana, which protracted into a tumultuous standing ovation, and spilled over into the foyer of the Teatru Astra as the enthralled patrons eagerly waited their appearance after the performance. No wonder Joseph was visibly moved and vowed to return. As the Americans put it, nothing succeeds like success!

The superb cast, which also included local up and coming Kevin Caruana whose vocal and histrionic powers impressed favourably, were very ably backed by the Teatru Astra Chorus who throughout the years has given its indispensable share in ensuring a second-to-none reputation in the local opera scenario.

Coached by the indefatigable Dr Maria Frendo, leader of the Laudate Pueri Choir of St George's basilica, the Teatru Astra Chorus, which comprised also the children’s section, sang and played their part to perfection. Every man and his dog knows that Puccini is devilishly difficult when it comes to choral parts. Compared to him, Verdi is a walk-over. Sudden interjections, which seem clueless, make his choral writing extremely taxing and a potential minefield which could throw the whole singing into disarray. To complicate matters, the choir is also expected to act their part as well. Bascetta sees to that! The way in which the choir conducted itself, both vocally and scenically was, to say the least, admirable. On cue and exuding extreme charm, which the Italians call disinvoltura, the choir contributed to the unfolding of the drama, and at the same time blended perfectly with the extremely beautiful sound scape which characterised this opera throughout.

An added bonus was the stylish Oxford Girls’ Choir, coached by St George’s basilica friend and benefactor Richard Vendome, who participated fully in this year’s edition of the Festival, and added lustre to the proceedings.

The production benefited from Manwel Grima’s and veteran George Farrugia’s skill and expertise in costume and design, scenic artist Joseph Cauchi and stage manager Carmelo Zammit with his team of tireless volunteers, as well as George Zammit, George Schembri and Peter Camilleri who coordinated the light effects.

The National Orchestra (leader Marcelline Agius), principals and choir were under the superb direction of Prof. Joseph Vella whose exemplary reading of the score and unsurpassed communicative powers ensured once again a top-notch production. Indeed, his professional input has been behind the string of glowing successes which have raised the Astra to hitherto unscaled heights when it comes to opera productions, among other things, in our islands. The team in charge have proved their sterling worth and may they long regale us with similar world-class productions.

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