Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème
Teatro Regio Torino, 2016
Gianandrea Noseda, Àlex Ollé, Irina Lungu, Kelebogile Besong, Giorgio Berrugi, Massimo Cavalletti, Benjamin Cho, Gabriele Sagona, Matteo Peirone, Cullen Gandy, Mauro Barra, Davide Motta Fré
Opera Platform - October 2016
La Bohème is one of those works whose former strengths no longer carry as much weight for me as they once might have done. The beautiful arias, the Romantic sweep of Puccini's heart-tugging arrangements and melodies are still beautiful, still emotionally and dramatically effective, but they no longer seem to be where the true heart of the work resides. The gaps in the plot and character that I would have once regarded as its weaknesses on the other hand now seem to be more important to the enduring universality of the work as a whole. Gianandrea Noseda and Àlex Ollé seem to be attempting to address both points and striving for a better balance in the Teatro Regio Torino's 120th anniversary production of the first performance of La Bohème there, but it could also be seen as trying to fix something that doesn't really need to be fixed.
The piecemeal adaptation of Henry Murger's story collection once might have been regarded as a weakness in the structure of the opera. There is little flow between the four distinct acts, each of them having to sum up a 'where they are now' situation, with all the troubles incidents and twists and turns that their lives have taken in-between left to the side. That wouldn't be so bad if the scenes that remain weren't padded out with what often feels like unnecessary colour, weak characterisation and a lot of joking around that isn't all that funny.
Those might seem like weaknesses, but Puccini turns them into virtues, mostly. There's nothing weak about Puccini's musical colouring for the scenes, and if the use and repetition of themes might not always meet the strictest codes of musical and dramatic integrity, they do create a continuity that is necessary to link the four Acts. If a theme is repeated in a different context from its original use, it often serves as a contrast and a 'reminder' of where it originally came from. The horsing around of the budding artists can still be irritating and feel pointless, but it is important to reflect a wider view of the situation that has a major impact on Rodolfo and Mimi. It's not the love story that is important in La Bohème, as much as the work being about how love tragically comes second place to paying the bills.
That's not a very romantic way to look at one of the greatest love stories in opera, but it is a mistake to idealise La Bohème and prettify the abject poverty of the "bohemian life", where the protagonists are fighting on a daily basis to heat their tiny rooms, trying not to starve and striving not to die of some terrible disease. While it's important to reflect this, it is also important to show how life goes on, how friendship and companionship endure and - regardless of the weight you think Puccini applies to this aspect - it's all there in the opera. There may also be huge gaps in Rodolfo and Mimi's relationship, but those gaps just widen the huge gulf between the ideal and the reality and leave space for the listener who has experienced the travails of love to reflect on the truths in their relationship.
It might not be perfect but, as is often the case with Puccini, the imperfections just leave space for consideration, interpretation and playing with the colours. La Bohème however is not a work that demands any reconstructive or deconstructive modernisation. Indeed, were it not for Stefan Herheim's charged Oslo production, you would think that this is one opera that is surely immune to too much directorial intervention. Critically however, Herheim managed to play to the traditional strengths of the opera, deepening its sentiments without resorting to sentimentality and in La Bohème, there's a thin line there that it is easy to cross. The challenge for Àlex Ollé is the same one of reigning in and opening up.
A member of La Fura dels Baus, the Catalan theatre team who are not exactly known for restraint in their productions of elaborate concepts and spectacular technical innovation, Ollé has however been capable of scaling down where there is no need for additional overemphasis. La Bohème very much has its own distinct world, but whether it is set in Belle Époque Paris or a more contemporary updating isn't as relevant as much as showing the relationship between the real world and the lives of the characters. Alfons Flores's set designs for the Teatro Regio Torino production depict a more contemporary world, but it is still recognisably a poor district inhabited by ordinary people.
What Àlex Ollé's direction seems to set out to emphasise - or maybe reflect more than emphasise - is the ordinary and the universal application of this world. It's not a tragic story of love and poverty in olden times, but a familiar one today, where love is unable to overcome the other practicalities of living. The garret room set of Act I and IV then is not a little enclosed space here; it's one room of many, where undoubtedly similar stories are played out. You occasionally see another couple - one set out on a romance at the same time as Rodolfo and Mimi's is ending - but these are incidental details that are not over-complicated or over-emphasised to the detriment of the main story.
With Café Momus sliding in on Act II - and looking like a properly swanky restaurant for a change rather than some dive - there is some effort to keep a sense of flow and continuity, as well as the all-important contrast that Puccini plays upon for effect. Like the rest of the Acts, Act III has a familiar configuration, just slightly updated, retaining what is necessary for the dramatic storytelling, while also trying to keep it relevant, or 'grounded' if you like, in a way it wouldn't be if it were kept period. It's not a realistic depiction of poverty and misery by any means, but it's not smothered in schmaltz either.
If La Bohème doesn't flow dramatically, in the music at least Puccini hits straight at the heart, and in the case of this work he is surely entitled to play to the emotions. Gianandrea Noseda however shows that you can adhere to the melodic, the romantic and the dramatic qualities of the music without ladling on the syrup. If this means that the tear-jerking qualities of the work are underplayed, well that's not necessarily a bad thing unless that's what you want, in which case this could be a little disappointing. I would say a fair proportion of a La Bohème audience would expect a little more emoting in the music and the singing than they get here.
Irina Lungu is a more delicate soprano than the full-cream Mimi we are accustomed to, and while she doesn't always hit the big moments she can bring some wonderful poignancy to something like "Addio, senza rancor". Her duet in this scene with Giorgio Berrugi is one of the high points here, Berrugi very much with a classic bright lyrical Italian tenor that is perfect for Rodolfo. With the combination of Lungu and Berrugi and Puccini's emotional expression at its finest, the conclusion of La Bohème still can't be anything but heart-wrenching, despite the efforts of the creative directors to downplay it slightly. It spared me being left a wreck at the conclusion, but I'm not sure that many would thank them for it, as that surely is the primary effect Puccini sets out to achieve.
Links: Teatro Regio Torino, Opera Platform