Puccini - La Bohème

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 19 2010

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Andreas Homoki. Sets (what sets?): Hartmut Meyer. Costumes: Mechthild Seipel. Mimi: Ermonela Jaho. Musetta: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Rodolfo: Giuseppe Filianoti. Marcello: Massimo Cavalletti. Schaunard: Lauri Vasar. Colline: Giovanni Battista Parodi. Parpignol: Marc Coulon. Benoît: Jacques Does.

Not being a fan of La Bohème, I’d never given the plot and characters much thought. Being paid to do it, however, Andreas Homoki has. His production, now in Brussels, raises a couple of interesting points that had never struck me before. First, “Bohemians” were really what are now called "bobos." We can assume that, as young painters, poets, musicians and philosophers, they were children of the bourgeoisie; and there’s little doubt that they aspired to material success, even if they set out to épater their class. Second, that being so, there’s every likelihood that, once success was upon them, they would (and did) ditch the likes of Mimi and Musetta.

Unfortunately getting these ideas across involved, in the production, diverging a great deal from the libretto in both words and actions.

In this staging there were no garrets, no café, no toll-gate… in fact there were no sets at all. There was just the empty stage, the rear wall painted dark grey, with a sprinkling of snow (though less than outside the theatre: I'd come up from Paris alone, nobody else having dared), and so it was from beginning to end. The action took place outside, with the local middle classes present as spectators to the “Bohemian” tomfoolery - the men amused, the women shocked. (Oddly, despite the snow and references to the cold, nobody had a coat on. The costumes, by the way, were the indefinitely modern dress we find in most productions these days, ranging from the 50s to Rodolfo’s present-day Pumas.) So, Marcello had two plastic buckets of paint, red and yellow, and threw them in broad splashes at the rear wall as the opera got under way, something that had the local ladies disapproving from the start. The fire was lit in an oil drum that happened to be there, and Schaunard arrived wheeling a supermarket trolley.

By now I was already wondering quite what the lads were doing living (and painting, writing, eating and drinking) out of doors. Benoît still knocked, and of course they said “come in.” That made no more sense than Mimi later complaining about the stairs, as there weren’t any. As to references to coaches and livery or Louis Philippe… Of course we’re used to these mismatches these days, but here there were an awful lot, the action having been moved outside; and this also meant a lot of tiresome mental gymnastics, trying to figure out what Homoki was getting at, reconcile the “new” action with the “old,” and even tell what was irony (in the original) and what not (here).

As the first tableau progressed, the locals dragged in a giant Christmas tree. In the second, they raised and decorated it while the kids chased, and in fact debagged, Parpignol, dressed as Santa Claus and left running around in his undies with the red trousers round his ankles. When the military music came on at the end, the tree crackled and flashed like a night raid over Baghdad while they fought over their presents, littering the stage with torn paper and cartons. When the curtain went up on the third tableau, they were still fixed in the same fighting poses: sometimes, when the music went quiet, Homoki had the chorus freeze or move in slow motion; here they froze for some time, before wandering slowly off, apparently hung over from the night’s festivities. This was really the morning after.

The fourth tableau was, I guess, a year or two later but still at Christmas. This time, we were at a literary cocktail party or gallery opening, with waiters and waitresses bearing canapés and asking our heroes, now kitted out in fancy suits, for autographs: they had made it, it seemed. So where the plot says “all parody eating a plentiful banquet, dance together, and sing,” this was no parody at all but a society event that rapidly got out of hand – and it wasn’t at all clear if Colline’s remark about a ministerial job was ironic. The lads, true to their reputation as former “wild boys,” I suppose, flirted with the waitresses and ended up throwing custard pies at each other; the tables were thrown apart in the scuffling and the giant tree fell down before Mimi’s dramatic return put an end to the havoc. She died as the cocktail guests arrived, dressed up to the nines. They fled in disgust. And, true to Homoki’s clever point about our bobos’ true allegiance, finally even Rodolfo quit the scene, leaving Musetta alone, crouched over Mimi.

I imagine casting Bohème is a conundrum: whether to go for credibly youthful looks or the mature ability to soar with Puccini (and over his orchestra at its most convulsive). The choice here was for youth, and that being said the cast could barely be faulted. Filianoti is undeniably (and unsurprisingly, given his name) an Italian tenor with a sun-filled timbre, Ermonela Jaho has a surprisingly ripe, round voice for so slight a frame and lovely piano singing, though she will need to keep her vibrato in check… But as a result of going for youth, with one exception the voices were Mozartian in size and a glance at the programme showed their usual repertoire is Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bizet and so on… So I couldn’t help thinking they’d have been better employed in Cosi fan Tutte and wondering if they were doing the right thing here: the last time I saw Bohème in Brussels, the Rodolfo was Rolando Villazon, about a month before, suddenly, he was world famous. Look what happened to him.

The exception I mentioned and to me the star of the cast was Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello: he’s a strong but musical baritone with something of the Bryn Terfel to him: at once resounding but nuanced and with more projection than anyone else on stage. He was perhaps the only one on stage who should really have been singing Puccini – though I could equally imagine him singing Don Giovanni.

The orchestra was at its most sumptuous under Rizzi and the afternoon was applauded vigorously.

Oh, by the way, the bravo-guy was there, so Puccini’s through-composed score was interrupted by unwanted applause at (odd but predictable) intervals. The bravo guy really doesn’t know or care, does he?

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