Puccini Opera Marathon, Romanian Style, Honors Centennial Of His Death

A scene from the Galati National Theater of Opera and Operetta of Puccini’s ‘La bohème’ at the Bucharest National Opera House

BUCHAREST — The centennial this year of Puccini’s death has been acknowledged by companies worldwide, but the Bucharest Opera Festival took the celebrations to another level with a Puccini extravaganza featuring 1,500 musicians, dancers, and production staff from 10 opera companies. On consecutive nights June 7-16 at the Bucharest National Opera House, the company performed eight staged productions, a semi-staged production, and a gala. According to the musicologist Oltea Șerban-Pârâu, who helped plan this logistical feat, stagehands from the regional companies and the Bucharest mothership worked around the clock.

During a whirlwind tour of Romania with a Romanian-American friend that began in Timisoara (in the Western part of the country) and ended in Bucharest, I saw La bohème and Tosca, the final two performances of the festival, as well as La traviata in Brasov, Transylvania. It was a brief but fascinating glimpse into the opera scene in Romania, which has six national opera companies and three regional companies.

Mimi and Violetta are roles associated with star Romanian sopranos Angela Gheorghiu, who released a commemorative Puccini album this year, and Ileana Cotrubaș, the 85-year-old singer who retired from performing in 1989. A Romance language, Romanian has 77% lexical similarity to Italian.

The Bucharest National Opera House (Wikipedia)

A festival in Romania, says Șerban-Pârâu, can’t compete with the comparatively huge budgets and star soloists of prominent festivals in western Europe, so organizers decided to differentiate the Bucharest festival (now in its third year) with a Puccini marathon. There was minimal rehearsal in the theater for the visiting companies, which brought their own orchestras, choruses, and sets. While the lineup didn’t include the big-name singers of Glyndebourne or Salzburg, the singers I heard in the Bohème performed by the Galati National Theater of Opera and Operetta (from Moldavia, eastern Romania) were international caliber. (It was the second Bohème in the festival: the first was a modern-dress staging by the Romanian National Opera Iasi on June 11.)

In the more traditional staging I attended June 15 — directed by Paolo Bosisio and deftly conducted by Traian Ichim — Mimì was beautifully sung by Lorena Puican alongside Paul Lungu’s passionate Rodolfo. The excellent cast also included Alin Munteanu as Marcello, Dominic Cristea as Schaunard, Sebastian Bancila as Colline, and Lorena Marginean as Musetta. After a deeply moving final scene, the orchestra took its bow on stage along with the cast.  

Audience members also had a chance to hear excerpts from Bohème at a gala concert featuring young singers from the Daegu Opera House in South Korea, with which the Bucharest Opera has a partnership. At the 2025 festival (June 6-15), Șerban-Pârâu said, if budget permits, she hopes to invite the Prague State Opera and perhaps feature a Handel production from London’s Royal Opera House.

The Bohemians in the Galati National Theater of Opera and Operetta production of ‘La bohème’

Reviews and videos of other productions in this year’s Puccini festival, including Il trittico (Brasov Opera), La rondine (Hungarian Opera of Cluj-Napoca), La fanciulla del West (Romanian National Opera Cluj-Napoca) and a semi-staged Manon Lescaut (Hungarian State Opera Budapest) indicate impressive singing and strong stagings that blend traditional and contemporary elements. (Incidentally, the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir recently recorded Fanciulla for Pentatone, conducted by Lawrence Foster and starring Melody Moore as Minnie and Marius Vlad as Dick Johnson.) The festival also included a Turandot by the Romanian National Opera Timisoara and a Madama Butterfly staged by the home team, the Bucharest National Opera.

Puccini composed Tosca for the Romanian soprano Hariclea Darclée. But like the heroine throwing herself off the parapet, the festival came to an unfortunate end with an amateurish performance of Tosca by the National Theater of Opera and Ballet “Oleg Danovski” from Constanta, a town on the Black Sea. The set was dominated by a large gold picture frame. With miscast leads, uneven singing, sometimes jarringly out of tune orchestral playing, and clunky direction — Tosca writhed on the stair-like ridges on the bottom of the frame during “Vissi d’arte” — it was a long evening. The sauna-like conditions in the beautiful Bucharest theater didn’t help. Concertgoers in America are accustomed to donning an extra layer in overly air-conditioned halls, but the Tosca cast, some in period dress of tights and wigs, must have been sweltering under the bright lights. With heat waves increasingly prevalent, it might be time for costume designers to ditch the wigs for summer festivals.

Opera Brasov in Transylvania (Photo by Vivien Schweitzer)

The Bucharest Opera House — built in 1953 and capacity 915 — is funded by the Ministry of Culture, which also subsidizes the other national houses. Corporate sponsorship for the arts is still rare in Romania, according to Șerban-Pârâu. But in addition to public funding, a touring production of La traviata performed by Bucharest Opera young artists did have a corporate sponsor. The Romanian pharmacy chain Catena set up a stall in the lobby of the modest Brasov Theater in Transylvania on June 11. Cheery reps handed out small bottles labeled “Tonico Forte,” as alerts blared from patrons’ phones warning of violent storms sweeping the area.

Despite this inauspicious start (and the fact that the Bucharest singers had limited rehearsal time with the Brasov orchestra and chorus), it was a memorable evening. The contemporary production — directed by Alexandru Nagy under the auspices of the Bucharest Opera’s Experimental Studio in Musical Performing Arts “Ludovic Spiess” — had a medical theme and opened with Violetta (the soprano Georgiana Dumitru) in a white dress in a hospital bed. Annina (Alexandra Cârstea) was a nurse; Alfredo (Andrei Manea) and Germont (Cristian Ruja) — who sedated Violetta with a giant syringe — looked like medical orderlies. The chorus of partygoers wore bright red, and an ominous figure in black danced eerily during the party scene, while a figure with long white hair sat slumped in a wheelchair with her back to the audience. Projections added a cinematographic flow.

The National Theater of Opera and Ballet “Oleg Danovski” from Constanta presented an amateurish performance of ‘Tosca’

Dumitru sang with control and nuanced dynamics, wielding her elegant voice to impressive effect in her Act I aria. During “Parigi, o cara” in the final act, Alfredo pushed Violetta in a wheelchair; she sang her final burst of transitory energy while helping the white-haired woman out of bed.

We bought last-minute orchestra seats for this Traviata for $10; balcony seats were about $6.50. Tickets for the Puccini Festival in Bucharest ranged from about $15 to $40. Subtitles were in Romanian, and the audiences at the performances I attended — all at capacity — seemed to be almost entirely Romanian. Șerban-Pârâu hopes to attract more foreign visitors in the future but emphasized that keeping tickets affordable for local residents will remain a priority.

In the Puccini program book, Daniel Jinga, the general manager of the Bucharest National Opera, asks, “Is such a festival, featuring ten theaters on the same stage over ten days and marking this centenary year, an international first? Little does it matter.”

It’s undoubtedly an impressive feat: a rare chance to hear up-and-coming Romanian singers in one marathon event and a true “tonico forte” for Puccini lovers.