Puccini - La Bohème

ONP Bastille, Friday December 29 2017

Conductor: Manuel López-Gómez. Production: Claus Guth. Sets: Étienne Pluss. Costumes: Eva Dessecker. Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Video: Arian Andiel. Choreography: Teresa Rotemberg. Mimì: Nicole Car. Musetta: Elena Tsallagova. Rodolfo: Benjamin Bernheim. Marcello: Artur Ruciński. Schaunard: Andrei Jilihovschi. Colline: Roberto Tagliavini. Alcindoro: Marc Labonnette. Parpignol: Antonel Boldan. Sergente dei doganari: Florent Mbia. Un doganiere: Jian-Hong Zhao. Un venditore ambulante: Fernando Velasquez. Orchestra and Choruss of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Choeur d’enfants de l’Opéra national de Paris.

Prompted by an exchange with internet chronicler Rowna Sutin, I took a look back over my 2017 schedule this weekend and decided it had been a good year. Highlights were discovering Snegurochka (and Aida Garifullina) in Tcherniakov's production; Bieito's very sound Carmen with Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role and Hymel as José; Warlikowski's Don Carlos with Kaufmann, Yoncheva, Garanca and Tézier; the late Patrice Chéreau's From The House Of The Dead. Best of all was probably Ginastera's Bomarzo in Madrid, a magnificent production by Pierre Audi, brilliantly performed, of a bizarrely neglected opera. The only thing I left at the interval last year was a flat Il barbiere, directed by Laurent Pelly (the flatness wasn't all his fault) at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées a few weeks ago.

This rich year also ended on a high note with Claus Guth’s La Bohème at the Paris Opera. The new production  thankfully chucked out the usual dismal garret with its dirty windows - though some people must like gloomy attics and or grimy glass, as the initial reception was mixed. In its place, Guth ingeniously and skilfully meshed the opera plot with Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris*. Four astronauts struggle to maintain an ailing spaceship with spitting, sparking electricals. As they lose contact with Earth, run out of food, power and oxygen and face slow but inevitable death, they slip deeper and deeper into hallucinatory, part-phantasmagorical flashbacks of their former lives. It isn’t always clear who’s real and who isn’t, who’s alive or who’s already dead - Benoît for example, is the already gamey corpse, in a body-bag, of a colleague they play with in a particularly macabre instance of light-headed tomfoolery.

There are just two sets. The first two acts take place inside the spaceship. A downward slant of the “Cinemascope”-format space from left to right is emphasised by white strip-lighting above and below. The ship's interior is mostly white (more so than in Tarkovsky’s film, though the aesthetic is vaguely 70s) and the lighting, usually stark, nevertheless changes subtly depending on the action. On the left is a large, ribbed, cylindrical tank or reactor. On the right, a smaller one. At the back, through a wide, round-cornered window, in act one  we see we are nearing a reddish planet; in act two we will be close enough to see the rocky surface approaching. There is a door, and a spare space suit hangs against the rear wall. Marcello tries to fix the electrical equipment while Rodolfo types up his log (projected over the window) and at this stage it seems they are reminiscing (more than actually hallucinating) to keep their spirits up in the face of cold and deprivation. The appearance, when Rodolfo is alone, of the vision of Mimí, in a plain red dress, sent an authentic shiver down my spine in a way it had never done in the traditional attic. The ensuing “frozen hand” business made sense.

In act two, the flashbacks grow more fantastic, with circus-like processions of aproned waiters juggling champagne bottles and setting up tables and chairs, waves of matrons and urchins all in black, doubles on stilts, coloured lanterns including an articulated Chinese dragon, and a shooting star picked out in white lights overhead, like a stray Christmas decoration. The tank or reactor on the left opens up to show a gilded, art-deco rotunda where Musetta, initially in a short, pink-and-black silk coat, sings her big number leaning against a golden pole, slipping off her gloves and slipping on a black boa. Near the end of the act, Mimí’s double, in the same red dress, is carried off on a stretcher, so perhaps she was once real but died (like, as I understand it, the hero’s wife in the film). All of this stage movement is beautifully managed (“Guth’s a professional,” remarked a friend with way better credentials than mine), and “led” by a mime-cum-ringmaster figure in a spangled waistcoat, sparkling black velvet coat and top hat, who will be a permanent feature of these visions until the end of the work.

There is a scene change for acts three and four. We now see the rocky, dusty white surface of the planet scattered with debris of both the ship, after its crash landing, and the fantasy items - the shooting star and its bulbs. Near-vertical strips of light rise into the sky and are capped by a near-horizontal one shooting across. In the snow, while the ringmaster-mime lies flat on his back to the left, one of the astronauts points an antenna to the sky in the hopes of making contact, but the log tells us “Nous sommes à la merci du néant. Le temps nous est compté.” Schaunard staggers on and off, bewildered, with a champagne bottle in his hand. A lone urchin in black parades a red lantern across the stage and brings the mime back to life. Mimí enters holding her candle.

In the last act, Rodolfo (more precisely his double) in his helmeted space suit, is the last alive. All other characters are visions of the past. “Solitude totale [...] délires fiévreux - cauchemars - ma vie repasse en images isolées, comme sur une scène” the tinsel curtain of which the ringmaster mimes drawing across more than half the stage before giving the signal for the music to strike up. Rodolfo and Marcello push their heads through the curtain while the ringmaster mimes the actions to their words, and emerge, holding microphones and hamming it up, three-tenors-style, for the big duet. The ensuing goofing around also takes place in front of the tinsel before Mimí appears, now in white with calla lilies.

Where Mimí normally dies in an iron bedstead under a macramé blanket, in this vision she walks slowly off towards the horizon, leaving Rodolfo alone and expiring with the mime who, at the final chord, blows the candle out.

“How many La Bohèmes can you see in your lifetime the traditional way before you’re just… uninvolved?” asked Rowna Sutin as she praised this production in her YouTube clip rounding up the best of 2017. It undeniably rejigs the sentimental scheme of La Bohème, but to me it transforms it from a fairly banal tear-jerker about which I don’t really much care, and which is made no more interesting by injections of Bohemian high jinks almost as tiresome as Papageno or all that country-inn nonsense in the last act of Rosenkavalier, into a real tragedy of lost love and life. I was spellbound.

The soloists were generous in their singing and committed in their acting, forming a consistent team. The quartet of young friends was the best-balanced I’ve come across, though Andrei Jilihovschi seemed perhaps a little shyer and vocally less self-assured than the others, so Artur Ruciński and especially Roberto Tagliavini got louder applause. Elsewhere on this blog, I've already noted that "Elena Tsallagova is a stunning, silvery soprano" and mentioned her "commitment, generosity and enthusiasm". Here she was standing in for Aida Garifullina, off sick, so that may explain her seeming more cautious and less fluent.

Benjamin Bernheim is a young French tenor making a name for himself. He has a clear, straightforward voice, fresh and limpid like a draught of cool water. It is very consistent, so if you have to criticise, you might say it could do with more variation in colour. Nicole Car was perhaps (perhaps: see next paragraph) most interesting of all. Her voice is firm, rich in harmonics, with darkish undertones, she acts well, and I'd be very interested in seeing and hearing her again.

But perhaps the star of the evening, musically speaking, was the orchestra, on its most splendid form. Conductor Manuel López-Gómez went for broad, lush symphonic sweep (so, as often happens with composers forging ahead with a symphonic vision, he sometimes lost the chorus in the fiddly details) as colourful and glamorous as a classic Hollywood score: La Bohème meets Gone with the Wind in space. It was gorgeous, doing Puccini proud.

This was easily the best Bohème I've ever seen and I hope the management of the Paris opera noticed that by the end of the run (I was at the penultimate performance, I think; I should have been there much sooner, but found myself at work in Hungary instead) there was not a single boo. The ONP has a frustrating and wasteful habit of discarding supposedly controversial productions after a single season - Warlikowski's magnificent Parsifal, for example, has never been seen again and is soon to be replaced. It is not even available on video. This remarkable Bohème reconciled me with an opera I have tended to avoid almost as assiduously as The Magic Flute. I would like to be able to see it again.

* Not taking an interest in cinema, which is my case, can be a handicap with some directors. Warlikowski, for example, may refer to (or project extracts from) several films in a single production. Having seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris mentioned in reviews, I got on to Google to find out what it was all about.

Here on YouTube Maestro Wenarto finishes off Mimí in black and white.


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