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La Bohème

Paris Opéra

In Review Paris Boheme hdl 318
Over the moon: Sonya Yoncheva as Mimì at the Opéra Bastille
© Bernd Uhlig

OPERA FANS have become accustomed to unusual settings for the classics, but few were expecting to see the opening of Puccini’s Bohème set in a space capsule, as was the case in Claus Guth’s new production for the Paris Opéra. The staging arrived at the Bastille on December 1, with conductor Gustavo Dudamel making his house debut.

The clue to Guth’s approach to the opera comes from the epilogue of Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, in which the now elderly students remember the Bohemian antics of their youth. The conceit was to imagine the characters on a hopeless space mission in the distant future—a sterile world devoid of love, in which their own approaching deaths provoke delirious evocations of the past. The first half of the opera took place in the space capsule, while the second half found the cast padding about in a lunar landscape accompanied by space-suited astronauts. The futuristic drama was inspired by Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris, in which explorers in outer space are haunted by their past erotic memories—and which was adapted as an opera by Dai Fujikura in 2015.

Messages describing the tragic destiny of the space mission flashed across the stage; the reconstruction of the past led to inexorable tragedy in both time worlds. At some moments—if one ignored the trappings of the space setting—this Bohème almost looked like a conventional staging of the opera. The memory of the Café Momus produced bistro tables and juggling waiters, with soprano Aida Garifullina’s strong but slightly brittle Musetta appearing in an opened space canister to sing her waltz. Other ideas were less clear. Rodolfo and Marcello, well-sung by tenor Atalla Ayan and baritone Artur Ruciński, performed their last-act duet clutching microphones, making it a feverish cabaret number with fellow students popping their heads though a glittery curtain, before bass Roberto Tagliavini sang a firm-voiced but rather stiff reading of Colline’s coat aria. As astronauts physically gestured the tragedy of lost love, encouraged by the skillfully played Parpignol of Antonel Boldan, Mimì headed off upstage into the oblivion of dreams, and Rodolfo confronted his own suffocation on this distant planet, his mortality echoed by the loss of his Mimì centuries before.

Inevitably, the first-night audience was deeply divided by this staging. The curtain rose on the opening of the second half of the opera to divisive shouting during the annoying space-odyssey sound effects. Guth’s curtain call was greeted by vociferous protests from part of the audience, but there was some enthusiastic applause from those who admire this director’s work. 

The real problem was the lack of sensuality or romance. Mimì’s first ghostlike appearance clutching her candle offered little allure. Sonya Yoncheva sounded ill at ease throughout Act I, with a stressed ending to the love duet and little youthful delicacy. Fortunately, things improved for the soprano in the second half of the opera, in which her full-voiced dramatic singing had marked authority. Ayan’s youthful, endearing Rodolfo lacked the power needed to fill the Bastille, but the Brazilian tenor deserves credit for convincingly creating a man trapped between his desperate twenty-second-century reality and the memory of his past love. 

The only genuinely successful element of the evening was the house debut of conductor Dudamel, who secured thrilling playing from the orchestra with exemplary pacing. His slightly hard-pressed tempos found the chorus lagging well behind his energetic baton at the opening of Act II, but this could prove to be a classic reading of the score once first-night jitters are past.

 It is legitimate to question whether Puccini’s music and his simple sense of theatrical reality are strong enough to support this intellectual regietheater overlay. There was not a damp eye in the house at the end of Guth’s production, which stimulated the audience but did not move it. —Stephen J. Mudge 


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