There is only one way for a soprano to perform in the world-famous opera La Boheme, and that's to simply go for it. That's because the plotline and Puccini's soaring compositions simply demand that you wear your heart on your sleeve when you take the stage. It is something that Irina Lungu, 39, always keeps in mind when signing up to perform another round of shows for the opera classic. This time around, she will bring her acclaimed technique to the Royal Opera House Muscat on Thursday and Saturday, with a new production of La Boheme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo and the choir of Opera de Monte Carlo.
It is part of the busy and impressive list of engagements Lungu has clocked up this year, which includes the role of Marguerite in Faust performed in London's Covent Garden in May, and a string of shows in the coming weeks as part of Il viaggio a Reims at the Sydney Opera House, in which she plays Corina. Yet, while Lungu enjoys all her roles, she says there is a certain joy and abandon to performing in La Boheme. "In my opinion, it is the most beautiful opera of all time, if not the most popular," she says. "There are many different reasons for this, but I think with this work, Puccini is speaking to us directly. It is a kind of direct and emotional language. The story is about love, death, friendship and tragedy. These are big emotions and Puccini has managed to communicate them in an immediate way."
Based on Henri Murger's 1851 collection of short stories Scenes de la vie Boheme, Puccini's adaptation recounts the story of doomed love between the wide-eyed poet Rodolfo and the ailing florist Mimi. The story traces the joys and passion of a youthful romance before both come to terms with the reality of death. After the rapturous debut performance at Italy's Teatro Regio in 1896, the opera fast established itself as part of the country's repertoire before going on to being performed abroad for the first time, four months later, in Argentina. In 1996, Puccini's masterpiece reached a new audience when La Boheme became the main inspiration behind playwright Jonathan Larson's Tony Award-winning musical Rent.
A big role in that international appeal lies in the direct and heart-rending compositions that Lungu talks about. La Boheme is full of swooning and passionate arias. They include Rodolfo's evening serenade to Mimi in Che gelida manina (What a Cold Little Hand) and Mimi's Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Yes, they Call Me Mimi). "These arias are all beautifully realised and you don't need to be an opera professional to understand them. They make you feel something," Lungu says. "A lot of that is because they speak of subjects that are very close to us. This also affects the soprano and performers. You can't be indifferent to this great music."
That may be the case with the score. However, when it came to recently taking on the role of Mimi, Lungu was initially not so convinced. She says she was more fond of her usual role of Musetta. Fierce and passionate, Lungu thought she was the opposite of the frail and sensitive Mimi. "How can I put it? It wasn't love at first sight," she recalls. "I had done Musetta in great productions like London's Covent Gardens and New York's Metropolitan Opera, and I had a great time. I always found my true personality in her. With Mimi's, I always thought she was boring."
However, like the audience, Lungu warmed to Mimi's character and found inspiration in her hidden reserves of strength. "I eventually found her much more interesting than Musetta. Because in the production, you only see one side of her. With Mimi, we see her evolve and see the different sides of her in various scenes," she says. "In the beginning she falls in love and is very curious and then she becomes frustrated, disappointed and unhappy. She shows the various emotions of being a human. And that's what makes her role such a challenge."
Lungu's journey with Mimi mirrors her own pathway to opera; it wasn't an auspicious start. Born in what was then the Soviet Union, and in what is today Moldova, Lungu began studying music at six years old. It was only when she turned 18 that she began to focus on her voice. "When that happened, I started to go to the opera and the first time was a disaster," she says with a laugh. "It was La Traviata and I went to sleep in my chair in the second act. I was very tired and they were not very good singers. But, I continued and things changed. This is life."
La Boheme will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Muscat, Oman, on Thursday, October 3, and Saturday, October 5, at 7pm. Tickets from OMR10 (Dh95) are available at www.rohmuscat.org.om