Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera is happy to shift visual operatic goalposts, but not too far. The 65-year-old Italian opera director is in town to oversee the aesthetics of the Israeli Opera’s latest production, La Bohème. The everpopular work by Puccini will premiere on April 23, with 11 more performances lined up through to May 10. The upcoming run is a co-production with the Opera Royal de Wallonie of Liège, Belgium, where Mazzonis di Pralafera serves as general and artistic director. The conductor is Daniel Oren, and the international cast includes Italian tenor Giorgio Berruggi, compatriot soprano Maria Agresta, Romanian baritone Ionut Pascu and Israeli tenor Guy Mannheim.
At least in chronological terms, Mazzonis di Pralafera has got his approach to the show spot on.
“The thinking behind the set is that I want to give the idea that we are in a movie,” he says.
Presumably, however, that has little to do with the incidental historical fact that La Bohème was written in 1895, the same year in which the Lumière Brothers produced what is considered to be the first cinematic work, a 46-second documentary entitled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon.
The opera tells the story of an ultimately doomed romance between Rodolfo, a struggling writer, and Mimi, an equally penurious seamstress.
“When Mimi comes in, the wall goes up and then you have like the zoom of a camera,” says Mazzonis di Pralafera. “In the first 15 minutes, you have the four friends [Rodolfo, painter Marcello, a philosopher named Colline and a musician called Schaunard] joking around. When Mimi arrives, you have a zoom on the love affair that starts at that moment.”
According to the director, there is a temporal subtext to be addressed in the work.
“To my mind, Mimi already knows Rodolfo. She comes in and looks at him, and you feel that she knows him and is already in love with him,” he says.
Mazzonis di Pralafera’s version of the work fast forwards events by half a century.
“We are in 1946 in Paris, just at the end of World War II, so there is a difficult economic situation,” he explains, adding that financial straits notwithstanding, there were some non-monetary delights to be enjoyed in the aftermath of the global hostilities.
“Love is in the air and intellectuals are blooming in Paris at that time. There was Sartre, Stravinsky, Camus and Picasso.
Everyone was there, and art was blooming after the five years of the war. Mimi is already in love, and that explains why when she arrives she doesn’t ask Rodolfo what his name is. She says her name is Mimi, but she doesn’t ask for his because she already knows it,” he says.
That romantic precursor means that the seamstress has already given her heart to the penniless poet and is eager to share his company.
“When the four friends say they are going to [Café] Momus, she says she doesn’t dare to ask if she can join them,” adds the director.
“She is not an easy girl; she is timid. And if she is timid, she says all those things because she is already in love with Rodolfo. That’s my idea.”
The storyline of La Bohème is of a heightened romantic nature, and the amorous vibes are further enhanced by the post-WW II sense of pansensorial liberation in Paris.
“That is why, in the third act, there is police control of people coming in [to Paris] because there were no jobs in the French countryside, and everyone wanted to come into Paris to find work.
Everything [in the opera] is historically correct,” he stresses.
This is not Mazzonis di Pralafera’s first working visit to this country, and he knows some of the members of La Bohème cast well.
“I did Othello with [soprano] Ira Bertman [one of the three singers who play the role of Mimi], and I also did Othello and La Traviata with [baritone] Noah [Briger],” he says, noting that he is impressed with the caliber of opera singers in this country. “They are very clever on stage. They know how to move, and they are good actors.”
That is a boon for the current production.
“In La Bohème, you need voices but you also need good actors. It is not always so easy to find,” says the director.
He is particularly happy to have the singers’ well-rounded skills and talents available to him for this opera.
“It is a very veristic opera; everything that happens in it is very natural,” he says. “I believe that La Bohème’s libretto is the most acute libretto ever written.
Everything that is said has an exact meaning, and it is a clear meaning.”
The opera is also one of the more timeless works of the discipline.
“They speak in modern language,” continues Mazzonis di Pralafera. “In Verdi and Donizetti and Rossini, you have an ancient poetic language with strange words that you don’t really understand what they mean. You don’t understand the right meaning because they don’t have a meaning; it is a poetical use of language. In La Bohème, it is the language of today.”
Then again, La Bohème was written more than 100 years ago, and there are limits to the temporal stretch. In general, Mazzonis di Pralafera feels that one can overstep the bounds of operatic flexibility and, contemporary relevance or not, he would not place La Bohème in the 21st century.
“That concept is not my cup of tea,” he declares. “I can accept that if it is very well done, but it is difficult to do something like that well. You have to stay true to the story all through the opera.”
Overall, the director says that we, the audience, don’t want our operatic entertainment to be forcibly put into the here and now.
He believes we want to enjoy some musical and visual operatic escapism.
“My credo for opera is that people come to opera to dream.
Opera is a dream,” he concludes.
April 23 to May 10. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il