BohemeGiacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Den Norske Opera, Oslo, 2012 | Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Stefan Herheim, Diego Torre, Vasilij Ladjuk, Marita Sølberg, Jennifer Rowley, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Espen Langvik, Svein Erik Sagbråten, Teodor Benno Vaage | Electric Picture

The first notes you hear in this 2012 Den Norske Opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème are the beeps of a heart monitor on a life support system that Mimi lies attached to in a hospital bed. The beeps take that familiar flatline tone as Mimi breathes her last and doctors rush in to the opening chords of the score proper in a vain attempt to resuscitate her, while Rodolfo looks on aghast, completely lost in his own grief. This evidently isn’t a traditional way to start La Bohème, but it is very much a typical Stefan Herheim touch where the standard linear approach is just not an option. As a director, Herheim is clearly interested in getting into the minds of characters whose actions and motivations we can take for granted from over-familiarity, and La Bohème is a very familiar opera. Not here it isn’t.

Having established that Mimi dies - which, let’s face it, even if you weren’t familiar with the opera, it’s a fate that is signalled clearly enough by Puccini right from the moment she totters and stumbles into Rodolfo’s garret, often with a hefty tubercular cough for good measure - Herheim is more interested in the impact her death has on Rodolfo after the opera ends, considering the times and the troubles they have shared together. Here then, viewed in flashback, La Bohème becomes a study of grief and bereavement that Rodolfo struggles to work through and eventually come to an acceptance of his loss through his poetry and his friends. If anyone can make such an idea work, working within the fabric of Puccini’s scoring without necessarily contradicting sentiments that are implicitly there in the nature of the music itself, it’s Herheim. Whether you think there’s any value in distorting the work to that extent is of course debatable, but there is certainly more intelligence in this thoughtful and considered approach than your average straight production that merely “performs” the work, Herheim taking into account the very real emotions and troubles of characters whose lives are played out in art and poverty. It’s certainly at least a refreshing alternative for anyone who is more than familiar with the long-running Copley and Miller productions of the work at the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum in London.

His grief played out in flashback then, the past and the present coexist simultaneously for Rodolfo, who has no means of pulling them together. The hospital ward seen at the start then opens up to a more traditional view of the past in Rodolfo’s Parisian garret where he and Mimi first met, the cleaner, surgeon and nurse taking up roles as the other characters (introducing Musetta into the process rather earlier too). The sense of perspective however shifts in a subtle way to tinge the meeting with that sense of grief for the inevitability of what has happened/will happen. When Rodolfo poses the question ‘Qui sono?‘ to himself here then - looking thoroughly confused - it takes on an entirely different meaning, one that involves real soul-searching, as well as a certain existential dilemma. Compressing and overlapping time in this way simultaneously concentrates all the joy and happiness of that fleeting moment of beauty, while forcing one to consider how brief and vulnerable are the flames of love on those candles that are so soon to burn out. The same flames of love will burn Rodolfo as well as provide warmth through the winter. Rather than contradict the emotions of a beautiful piece (Act 1 of La Bohème is for me something incredibly powerful), this production genuinely enhances what is already there.

There are lots of touches however that aren’t going to be to everyone’s liking. Already in this First Act, Mimi collapses, her wig is removed to reveal a bald head that bears the signs of chemotherapy (this Mimi is dying from the rather more contemporary killer of cancer rather than the traditional old-fashioned disease of tuberculosis), and she is ushered back into that modern hospital bed that looms at the corner of Rodolfo’s consciousness. The shifting of the off-kilter sets from one ‘reality’ to the next - incredibly well designed to transform so smoothly - have an unsettling effect not only on Rodolfo but on the viewer also, leaving them unsure at times about what exactly is going on, and why the familiar figures in the work don’t behave in character in the way that we expect. Mimi “dies” again at the end of Act II, for example, and her medical chart is added to the Café Momus “bill” that has to be paid at the end. I think the implication is clear enough. Unwilling to “pay the bill” however the near-demented Rodolfo here is so impassioned that you get the impression he believes he could bring her ghost back to life by the end of the opera. Wouldn’t that be something? But no, Herheim stays faithful to the intentions of the work. “Per richiamarla in vita non basta amore” - “Love alone will not suffice to bring her back to life”, he says in Act III. It’s all there in the libretto if you want to look for it.

The absurd modern twists on an otherwise faithful staging can be a little off-putting - or will be simply intolerable to some viewers - but they can also be extremely powerful. If you consider that Puccini’s writing here is extremely manipulative and has a tendency towards heavy pathos, sentimentality and schmaltz, Herheim’s staging forces you to listen to the music in a different context, and the effect is phenomenal. Puccini, like the listener, knows Mimi’s fate from the outset, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. The tragedy isn’t so much that Rodolfo doesn’t know it, or that he is unwilling to face up to her flirtatious and mercenary nature, or even the realisation that she’s seriously ill and going to die, but rather, that he is on some level aware of it, but still loves her despite it all. All those implications are there in Puccini’s score and brought out in the development of the opera if you want to explore them, and Herheim does. Using Rodolfo’s inability to come to terms with his grief as a means of showing his struggle to deal with the inevitability of what must occur not only makes this almost indescribably sad, it’s also an effective way of dealing with some of the problematic issues surrounding Puccini’s generously expressive scoring.

Aside from the technicalities and impressions created by Herheim’s direction and Heike Scheele’s set designs, the performance of the work itself is overall very good. The added dramatic twists moreover rather than getting in the way of the performances only seemed to intensify their impassioned delivery. More so Rodolfo than Mimi, it has to be said, Diego Torre singing the role superbly, with consideration for the different nuances of meaning applied to his character. By focussing the attention on Rodolfo’s state of mind and resigning Mimi to little more than a ghost however, the consequence is that it weakens Marita Sølberg’s contribution to the work, but she sings it well in the context. The subjective view of Rodolfo also has a consequence of reducing the relevance of the other characters to relatively minor roles, but even if it loses some of the contrasting elements of the nature of relationships that is brought out by the Marcello and Musetta pairing (adequately sung by Vasilij Ladjuk and Jennifer Rowley), the tightening of the focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this work either. Svein Erik Sagbråten’s recurring Death-like presence as the landlord Benoît, Parpignol, Alcindoro and a Toll gate keeper could also be seen as bringing more of a consistency to the colourful but marginal episodes of the work.

On Blu-ray, the production looks and sounds as good as you would expect from a recent HD recording. The singing sounds a little echoing in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, but I found that the stereo track sounded much clearer through headphones. The recording and mixing of the orchestra however is gorgeous, with lovely tone and detail in the orchestration. It’s a good account of the work - Eivind Gullberg Jensen directing the opera for the first time - attuned to the performances and only slightly adjusted in one or two places for the tempo and tone to match the production. There are a few very short interviews on the disc (around a minute each) with the director, conductor and cast, done backstage in the intervals presumably during a television broadcast of the live performance. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.