Dutch National Opera revives a musically gorgeous La bohème

Puccini: La bohème

Dutch National Opera, 1 December 2017


The original Café Momus, the Christmas Eve party venue in La bohème

Benedict Andrews’ staging of La bohème is seriously flawed, but this revival was a triumph, thanks to picture-perfect, vocally enticing soloists and the copiously talented young conductor Andrea Battistoni.

Full review on Bachtrack.


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.

An honest-to-goodness La Bohème from Hannover

Bohème by Sebastien Dulac

Bohème by Sebastien Dulac, 1831

20,000 picnickers can’t be wrong. Here are some reasons why you should watch yesterday’s open-air Bohème from the Marschpark in Hannover. It’s available for long-term catch-up on the NDR website.

  • In this semi-staged performance all the props were literal, except perhaps Mimì’s pink bonnet, which was reduced to a girly headband. Costumes seemed to be improvised from the singers’ own wardrobes, making the characters endearingly individual. Where else would you see a Mimì dressed in floaty boho vintage alongside a Musetta in sequinned slinkiness? Cast and audience alike seemed to be having a great time and their enthusiasm spilled over onto the small screen. I was more than happy to accept some stock operatic gestures from the lesser thespians in exchange for performances wrenched straight from the heart.
  • Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson kept everyone beautifully on course and the NDR Radio Philharmonic played with concentration and sass. The girls of the Mädchenchor Hannover sounded tween-angelic as the children. It was a treat to see them in action in the aisle, within arm’s length of the audience, as at the best sold-out church hall shows. Ditto the band and supers.
  • Michael Fabiano and Carmen Giannattasio are not your usual sunny-voiced Mimì and Rodolfo. Both have spinto-ish, dark-tinted voices and, as such, were vocally well-matched. Mr Fabiano regaled us with his gale-force top notes and Ms Giannattasio with her lovely Italianate phrasing. As Mimì grew weaker, both their performances intensified. Mr Fabiano cried REAL TEARS during the death scene. What does it matter that she still had her healthy lass make-up on? Watch and weep.
  • The second couple were equally gratifying. Angel Joy Blue’s naughty-eyed Musetta moved in a cloud of glamour, vocally and in every other way. Not only were her frocks supersparkly, but sparks flew between her and Mariusz Kwiecień’s Marcello. And if you wonder how she’d sound as the seamstress, you can hear her as Mimì and more in NDR’s recent opera gala with Joseph Calleja.
  • One more reason to watch: Yngve Soeberg lending his buttery baritone to Shaunard. A gorgeous voice.

NDR Klassik Open Air: Thank you, and until next year!