Set in space, Claus Guth’s new production of La Bohème for Paris Opera is infinitely worth catching in cinemas, and not only to see whether it deserves the critical drubbing it received during its run in December of last year. The idea that Puccini’s operas resist directorial intervention is one to be sceptical of, and Guth provides a fine example of how to tackle a work by a composer who took extreme care of the staging in his score. This is not to say that Guth’s take on Bohème is without its problems – fussiness sets in during the second and third acts, and the frequent close ups of this cinema transmission dispel the illusion of the body doubles, central to the drama. But when the concept gels – and it really does in that first act – the effect is frequently moving, helped by Etienne Pluss’s majestic sets.
Nicole Car in Paris Opera’s La Bohéme. Photo: supplied.
The joyous, rollicking opening chords of Bohème are here replaced by claustrophobic electronic throbs, with the curtain coming up on the interior of a gleaming white spaceship. The conceit – told to the audience through a number of log entries made by Rodolfo – is that the four bohemians are on a space expedition that becomes increasingly hopeless, with little chance for survival. Guth positions memory (and the imagination) as crucial balms in moments of difficulty, with much of the ensuing drama willing hallucinations and remembrances on the parts of the boys. The manic energy with which they caper and jape in order to chase away feelings of hopelessness takes a particularly macabre turn – Benoit here is an old corpse they’ve dug out of the ship’s hold.
Puccini’s obvious fetishisation of the ill Mimì even gains a deeper dimension in Guth’s staging – with much of the action springing forth from Rodolfo’s memory, it makes sense that he would cling to an idealised conception of his dead lover. Mimì is sensitively sung and realised by Nicole Car, who provides a masterclass in finely drawn emotion, bringing to mind the innate modesty of a Freni or Cotrubas. Although some of Mimì’s more extreme emotions are not yet within her wheelhouse, Car is always in tune with the ebb and flow of Puccini’s writing – the way her voice floods with warmth when she sings of April’s first kiss is worth the price of admission alone.
Act two of La Bohème. Photo: supplied.
Her Rodolfo, sung by Brazilian Atalla Ayan, is not quite on her level in the acting department, which is a shame for he must not only evoke the Rodolfo of the past, but the Rodolfo as dying astronaut of the present. Yet his tenor is a handsome Italianate one, if a little soft grained in some of the more heavily orchestrated passages. In Guth’s conception, the pair of famous arias in act one become not moments of connection, but moments of profound disconnection – Rodolfo sings to camera, which is projected back onto the stage, instead of to his hallucinated Mimi, indulgently lost in his own memories and sorrows. It’s a heart wrenching, uncomfortable sight, speaking to the loneliness of the four bohemians and their extreme attempts to overcome it.
Of the other cast members, Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Marcello makes a favourable impression, as does Aida Garifullina’s undeniably sexy Musetta – however, it must be said that they get short shrift in this production, which focuses mainly on the central couple. Alessio Arduini as Schaunard and Roberto Tagliavini as Colline also make fine contributions. Meanwhile, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Paris forces with a keen eye to detail, making the big moments count and the smallest musical gesture ring out loud and true.
So if you’ve been put off by some of the critical brouhaha surrounding this production, or can’t bear to see another Bohème, do keep an open mind – this staging represents a genuine attempt on Guth’s part to engage with one of the best loved works in the canon. And even if you’re not convinced, at least there’s some great singing.
Paris Opera’s La Bohéme is in Palace Cinemas February 2 – 7.