Sølberg, Rowley; Torre, Ladjuk, Parodi; Chorus, Children's Chorus and Orchestra of Norwegian National Opera, Jensen. Production: Herheim. Electric Picture EPC01DVD (DVD) or EPC02BD (Blu-ray), 118 mins. (opera), 9 mins. (bonus), subtitled
A cancer victim lies dying in an intensive care unit, the twenty-first-century poet Rodolfo at her side. When the EKG machine flatlines and a medical team fails to revive her, Rodolfo, wild with grief, reanimates her in his own fantasy world as the nineteenth-century Mimì. A hospital janitor becomes Marcello, doctors become Colline and Schaunard, and a nurse becomes Musetta.
Thus begins Stefan Herheim's 2012 Norwegian National Opera staging, which wasn't quite working for me until I heard his introduction to the telecast — included as an extra on this DVD. Contradicting what I'd read several times, including on the DVD jacket, Herheim indicates that the cancer victim is not Mimì but the love of Rodolfo's life, whose death triggers the nineteenth-century fantasy. Once I knew this, the pieces fell into place. Thoughts of his dead love intrude on Rodolfo's fantasy; he confuses and conflates the two women. It's fascinating to watch the two centuries and worlds intersect, especially when Herheim plays libretto lines for double meaning. He fills the action with telling touches that may take a few viewings to assimilate. La Bohème becomes a more complex, richer opera.
Herheim creates a tense rivalry between janitor/Marcello and doctor/Schaunard for nurse/Musetta. Benoit, Parpignol, Alcindoro, the tollgate keeper and some non-singing cameos are all done by a hook-nosed character signifying Death. These inventions highlight Herheim's dizzying Act II, a nightmare for Rodolfo, who sees a leering Dickensian crowd, bald chemotherapy patients and Death as a drum major marching Mimì off the stage, then finds himself back at the hospital.
Puccini the master manipulator, who pushes every button to jerk tears for Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, Angelica and Liù, has a kindred spirit in Herheim, who immediately presents a suffering Rodolfo, then wounds him again and again. The knife twists until we're wallowing in sentiment, then Herheim injects a shot of irony: Death plays a violin, mocking us all.
The hardworking cast is persuasive without ever being riveting as thespians or outstanding as singers. Marita Sølberg, as Mimì, comes closest in both areas; lovely of manner and of voice, she doesn't always maintain full tone all the way to the end of a phrase. As Rodolfo, Diego Torre's stentorian approach could benefit from more soft singing and less portamento, but his tenor is solid, with a strong top; he sings "Che gelida manina" at score pitch and matches Sølberg's high C at the end of Act I. Jennifer Rowley's Musetta is more coarse than classy, but her singing has color and nuance. Unusually, the Marcello, Vasilij Ladjuk, has a lighter baritone than the Schaunard, Espen Langvik, but both are fine; the Colline, bass Giovanni Battista Parodi, is weaker. Svein Erik Sagbråten, in the Death roles, can be scary. Conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen captures the score's quicksilver quality. Orchestra, chorus and children's chorus sound just average.
For viewers who don't mind owning more than one Bohème, the musically excellent, visually vibrant Karajan–Zeffirelli film, shot in 1965, is the perfect complement for this thorough rethinking and brilliant re-creation by Herheim. Together they mine the opera for its intrinsic and potential riches.
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