Not your baguette-and-butter Bohème

La Bohème (1926)

Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in La Bohème (1926), directed by King Visor

That Very Good Idea by the European professional opera association, the Opera Platform, is now offering Stefan Herheim’s La Bohème for the Norwegian National Opera. I would argue that this extraordinary production is equally suitable for viewers new to opera as for those who can’t be bear to see yet another set of shivering, partying Bohemians.

Herheim stages the opera as Rodolfo’s fantasy retelling of his love story with Mimì, as she lies dying of cancer in a contemporary hospital. Rodolfo is, after all, a poet, and it is totally plausible that he resorts to his art to deal with his tragedy. The action moves back and forth from the hospital ward to Paris in the 1830s, but not just in simple fantasy-filtered flashbacks. By cross-pollinating the two settings, Herheim encourages veteran audiences to look with fresh eyes at the work. Updating Mimì’s death from tuberculosis to a sadly more familiar situation increases the immediacy of the drama for viewers with all levels of operatic experience.

Many of us still think of TB as a disease that disappeared with the nineteenth century. Its widespread contagion was not successfully curbed until the start of the twentieth century, when it was still claiming victims. In fact, the actress Renée Adorée (1898-1933), who played Musette in King Vidor’s 1926 silent film based on the opera, died in her thirties of the disease.


Renée Adorée as Musette

Renée Adorée as Musette

Although drug-resistant tuberculosis is still a reality, its mention does not strike immediate fear in our hearts, as with Puccini’s Bohemians. Sadly, we have all known or heard of a Mimì with incurable cancer. The fact that Mimì dies in the pungent warmth of a hospital, instead of the romantic cold of a studio-attic, intensifies her hopeless tragedy. This production also features some beautiful singing, especially by Marita Sølberg as Mimì. Happy/sad armchair viewing.


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