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La Boheme in Outer Space

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REVIEW OF CLAUS GUTH’S PRODUCTION IN PARIS

Reviewed by James Karas

Everyone has heard of Puccini’s La Boheme, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Four cold and starving artists live in a garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the nineteenth century. Three of them go off to the café while Rodolfo remains behind. A knock on the door and Mimi, a pretty girl, asks for her candle to be relit. They search for her key on the floor and Rodolfo touches her cold hand and sings “Che gelida manina.” She introduces herself, “Mi chiamano Mimi” and he tells her his life story.

We have deep, pure and wonderful love that will last for a full two acts. At the end Mimi will die and there will not be a dry eye in the house.

That is the traditional La Boheme most memorably directed by Franco Zeffirelli for the Met in 1981 and still holding the stage.

What would you say if we moved the starving artists from the Lain Quarter to a spacecraft in  outer space sometime in the future? Mimi is already dead, and Rodolfo is hallucinating and recalling the distant past as he and his companions are awaiting certain death in the disabled space vehicle?

That is what German director Claus Guth did in his 2017 production of La Boheme for the Paris Opera at the Bastille. 

One’s initial reaction may well be “gimme a break” as s/he heads for the nearest exit door. A bit of patience may well convince you that Guth’s admittedly very extensive liberties result in a production that makes you appreciate the opera even more and indeed produce moist eyes.

The liberties Guth takes are numerous but in the end they do not cause any problems with the story or the music. The orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel does outstanding work.

Most of main characters appear in two modes. The artists are astronauts and dressed as such. But they are also recalling the distant past when they were indeed living in Paris and we see them in regular street clothes. Benoit, he landlord, is dead and his lines are sung by the artists although we see him. Mimi is seen dead and alive. There is an additional character that we first see in the Momus Café. It may be Parpignol but he looks like the Grim Reaper.

After the stunning set of the interior of a spacecraft in the first two acts, we move to a desolate expanse with the visible wreckage of a spacecraft. In the final act, the desolate space is visible but the action takes place in front of an ominous curtain.

Guth takes La Boheme to the outer limits of his imagination and asks us to follow him. I found the production outstanding and mind-blowing. The initial reaction was greeted with unfriendly boos, to put it politely, and some critics had few kind words about it. Our reactions are subjective and mine is simply enthusiastic.

The singing deserves mention and very high praise. Soprano Nicole Car has a splendid voice and she sings a superb Mimi. It is even more impressive because we know she is dead and we see her in Rodolfo’s (superbly sung by Atalla Ayan) recollection of their youth. I found it doubly moving.

Aida Garifullina as Musetta displays her gorgeous voice, her panache as a free-spirited woman and her enormous sexual magnetism. What a performance.  

The other artists rate high marks for their singing with Artur Rucinski as Marcello, Alessio Arduini as Schaunard and Robert Tagliavini as Colline.

Toronto audiences may recall that Guth directed The Marriage of Figaro for the Canadian Opera Company in 2016. He informed us in the programme that “he wanted to follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths.” I hated it. I did not see the psychological depths of the characters and, frankly, was not particularly interested in that type of study. Figaro is opera buffa to be enjoyed as such and not a subject for psychological study.

I also saw Guth’s production of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2016. He took liberties with everything including having seven instead of one Salome but the result was an unorthodox, profoundly original, perhaps disturbing to some but in the end, it was opera at its intellectually most exciting.

To coin a phrase, chacun á son gout.