La Bohème

Tragic Love in a Frosty Setting

December 6, 2017By Nick HammondMusic
New production of La Bohème, Paris Opera
A scene from the new production of “La Bohème” at the Paris Opera. © Bernd Uhlig/Opéra National de Paris

Imagine the scene. German director Claus Guth has been asked to create a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème for the Bastille Opera House in Paris. “I need to shake up this old chestnut.” he says to himself. “Let me read the first few lines of the libretto; not much point in going beyond that.”

At the beginning of the story, Rodolfo the poet is gazing out over the rooftops of Paris from the garret he shares with Marcello the painter, Colline the philosopher and Schaunard the musician. To keep them warm, Marcello burns the painting he has been working on in the stove. As the flames consume the artwork, Colline refers to the beginning of the Apocalypse.

“Ah!” declares Guth. “Instead of staging this opera in its usual setting of Montmartre, why not set it in a space station at the end of the world, with the four male protagonists, dressed in spacesuits, looking down at Earth?”

There is, however, the minor inconvenience of having to tell the tragic story of the consumptive Mimi’s love affair with Rodolfo.

“Easy!” the director says. “Let’s have Rodolfo remembering the past. He will remain dressed in his spacesuit, but Mimi will magically enter the space station from time to time wearing a red dress as he thinks about their past love. And, just to add a little variety, we can set the latter stages of the opera on the moon itself.” And thus a new production is born.

Unfortunately, what might have seemed a good idea in Herr Guth’s brain simply does not work in practice. As much as the more conservative elements of the Puccini-loving Paris audience need a good shakeup from time to time, it is difficult to convey the warmth of the musical score and the passion of the story when Rodolfo is dressed as a spaceman standing on a dark, cold lunar surface.

Given these seemingly insuperable obstacles, the singers and musicians coped remarkably well. As Mimi, the Australian soprano Nicole Car (who is alternating with the Bulgarian singer Sonya Yoncheva) was for me the star of the show: she uses her voice in an interesting way, starting with an almost smoky texture but opening up and delivering vocal power when it is most needed.

Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan sings Rodolfo with appropriate ardor, but, not surprisingly, he is somewhat encumbered by all the space paraphernalia and does not have the vocal heft to soar above the orchestral line in the manner of a Pavarotti or a Domingo.

Aida Garifullina’s coquettish Musetta is both sexy and musically thrilling, as long as one doesn’t reflect too much upon the absurdity of seeing her emerge from behind a glittering curtain on a spaceship.

I have long wanted to see the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel in person, and it was worth the wait. He manages to coax extraordinarily detailed musical textures from the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, and, if at climactic moments the orchestra threatens to overwhelm the singers’ voices, it’s a price worth paying when you have music-making of such high quality.

In the end, however, it’s difficult to get away from the ludicrous staging. Setting operas in space seems to be the new trend – only two years ago Alvis Hermanis’s production of Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the same opera house was set on Mars. If you are a fan of the film Gravity, you might enjoy this production. If you like your Puccini served on a warm, traditional plate, it might be best to avoid this frosty, oxygen-starved offering.

Note: The opera will be broadcast live in cinemas on December 12, 2017.

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