Puccini's La bohème directed by Stefan Herheim

Herheim’s work is massively stimulating, possibly verging on genius, although traditionalists beware!

Puccini's La bohème directed by Stefan Herheim

Paris, around 1830. Or is it? Surely Puccini's most beloved opera, La Bohème tells the story of Mimì, her ill-fated love, all around Christmas time. No wonder it is a perennial favourite. But directorial input in opera can create pretty much anything these days, and Stefan Herheim is known for his controversial productions: a Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne recreated the organ room next door on the main stage (Herheim's original idea was to set it on a space ship). Here on Classical Explorer, we looked at Herheim's Wagner Meistersinger von Nürnberg in this post. What we have here is Herheim’s 2012 staging of Bohème for Norwegian National Opera.

So what happens in Herheim's Bohème? We see a hospital ward, in which Mimì lies in a bed, dying;. medicos attemd to resusctate her, to now avail. Herheim moves between this and something whch does indeed look more traditional in terms of the Parisian garret (and the men wear period-appropriate dress). In their act one candle duet, Rodolfo starts undressing Mimì to reveal a hospital gown underneath and relieves her of a wig to reveal a bald head - by the time we get to ‘Che gelida manina,’ we have crossed the stage to the hospital bed, with Rodolfo still in period costume and Mimī now effectively comatose.

Worlds of the ‘real‘ (a death from cancer’ and the imagined (Puccini's garrett setting) collide. For Marcello, the ‘remembered’ Bohème story becomes a way for him to deal at least intially  death with the death of his beloved, and to bring him to a place at which he can begin the grieving process.

In the original story, it was tuberculosis that was an omnipresent threat. Today, it is cancer, and Herheim suggests this equivalence in his staging. With Mimì's death already shown at the outset, the over-riding question becomes how does one cope with the death of a loved one? This overshadows everything thereafter. and whenever we are dragged back into the hospital setting it acts as a visceral reminder of our own mortality. In this way, memory (the actual events of the opera, seenthrough the prism of Rodolfo's memory) become a means of escapism from the visceral reality of Mimì's passing. Even the humour of the lads’ play becomes a means of escape. The more traditional parts of the staging actually play with Oslo's Zeffirelli-like 1963 production sets, something which would plug in to local audience collective memory (although is unlikely to have that resonance on a global perspective, it is notable that Herheim was brought up with Norwegian Opera's staging).

One ofthe starting points for the production was Mimì's own duality. Everyone calls her Mimì, she says, but then tells us her name is Lucia; so nothing is quite what it seems. And, of course, serious illness is often a call for reappraisal of priorities and of oneself - what was might indeed seem like a dream.

Here's a short clip to demonstrate how the sets work together, ‘O soave fanciulla‘:

At one point Marcello moves towards Mimì, gently - but the shadow of him on the wall implies a predator much in the way of early horror movies. The Café Momus scene is in many ways the most traditional, identifiaboly a café (but with quite a freaky Parpignol from Sven-Erik Sogbråten, who has his work cut out in this production. He plays Parpignol, Benoît (the landlord), Alcindoro, the Gate Keeper in teh third act ... and did I mention Herheim introduces a chaacter called Death? Sogbråten again.

When it comes to the Mimì's death scene, her impending arrival is announced by Musetta (Jennifer Rowley) in a commanding, almost Erda-like fashion. Sølberg herself  is interrific voice, whether floating notes as if from Heaven, or throwing out octaves with Torre’s Rodolfo.  And how touching is her final act  ‘Buon giorno, Marcello’. I probably should not spoil the end, but it as devastating as it is surprising, Mimì's words taking on huge new levels of meaning back in the hospital room. Amazing to think that this production was the first time she presented the role.

This video gives clips from various important scenes and should giev you a good idea if you love or loathe this idea:

Diego Torre is a fabulous Marcello, open-voiced, ardent, in tune (not always the case in opera!) and with the most wonderful tone without a touch of harshness. Martita Sølberg's (Mimì's) response to that (‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimi’) is of the uttermost tenderness; Sølberg is, musically and dramatically the real deal, and Torre‘s ideal complement. We are used to a fragile Mimì, but seeing her bare dressed only in a hospital gown really does ram the point home. Here's that aria:

The various male voices are well chosen and work brilliantly as a group in the flanking acts. As Musetta, Jennifer Rowley, clad in seductive red, makes time stand still in the second act in a brilliant rendition of ’Quando m’en vo,’ brilliantly and daringly paced by the conductor, Eivind  Gullberg Jensen, here conducting (brilliantly) his very first Bohème. Vasily Ladyuk is a fine, convincing Marcello. Later, in act 3, she sings her part from an operating table, still in her red party dress. This third act is devastating. We see hospital staff cleaning floors, children with cancer walking past before the stage clears and ‘Parpignol,’ in uniform, directs  Mimì to Rodolfo.

This is part of a deal Norwegian National Opera made with Herheim when they moved venue to Byorvika, that he would direct one new opera for the first four years.

This is actually Classical Explorer’s third Bohème and, for me, the most fascinating. One was audio-only, that from Irish National Opera on Signum; then there was Richard Jones’ well-worn Covent Garden production, probably for when you want a more traditional emotional shredding. But Herheim’s work is massively stimulating, possibly verging on genius; but traditionalists beware!