Friday, 5 January 2018

Puccini - La Bohème (Paris, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Gustavo Dudamel, Claus Guth, Nicole Car, Aida Garifullina, Atalla Ayan, Artur Rucinski, Alessio Arduini, Roberto Tagliavini, Marc Labonnette, Antonel Boldan, Bernard Arrieta, Jain-Hong Zhao, Fernando Velasquez

Culturebox - 12 December 2017

No, no matter how much you try to rationalise it, there could surely be no justification for director Claus Guth reinventing La Bohème as a science-fiction space adventure. As strange as Guth's productions can often be, this one for the Paris Opera was always going to be a bit of a stretch. But you've got to admire Guth's nerve for even attempting something like this at La Bastille, where a large conservative element in the audience don't usually take kindly to such directorial indulgences. I couldn't wait to see what Guth did with this, even if failure and the disapprobation of the Paris audience was likely to be the outcome of such a conceit.

As outrageous as the idea might seem and as outlandish as it indeed looks seeing La Bohème take place on a space station crash-landing on a distant moon, Guth's approach to making it fit actually isn't all that surprising. It's one step removed from 'it was all a dream' brought on by bereavement and deprivation leading to mental breakdown (as Stefan Herheim also basically proposed in his reverse deconstructed Oslo production), and in a futuristic space context that kind of idea tends to play out like Solaris (which has already been adopted to opera in recent years by Detlev Glanert and Dai Fujikura), a work which leaves room for some in-depth consideration of the nature of human relationships.

La Bohème then actually has some suitability for this kind of feverish nightmare outlook. The forced comedy of impoverished artists facing starvation projecting their creative imaginations towards surreal displays can be seen as a distraction from the reality of their circumstances. The 'pretend' feast and acquiring of riches in Act I then results in the surrealism of fantasies of dining at Café Momus and in a parade of life that surrounds the toy seller Parpignol. The charade becomes harder to maintain as the realities hit home on Act III, and in Act IV the playing becomes a grim dance of death.

In such a creative mindset, Marcello's painting of the Red Sea in Act I could just as easily be a vision of the Red Planet, couldn't it? Well, in Guth's production it literally is the view outside the window that faces a small team of astronauts whose ship has broken down, but that's about the only easy transition in the production between a garret in fin de siècle Paris and the cabin of a rocket ship. Elsewhere, like Rodolfo, you're going to have to be a bit imaginative in finding any convincing connection or rationale for the production's extraterrestrial setting, but Guth tries to give us one based on Henry Murger's original stories being viewed by the protagonists as older people reflecting on youth and mortality ...only in an outer space setting evidently.

The captain's log, rolled out on a screen, tells us that the four-man team's mission has gone off course 136 days into their space voyage; their reactors are down, resources are almost exhausted and time is running out for the crew. In an effort to keep their spirits up they let their imaginations run free on an idealised version of a long gone past. Seen largely from the perspective of Rodolfo's disintegrating grasp on reality, it's no surprise that suspended in a state between sleep and waking delirium his mind returns to happier times and he is haunted Solaris Hari-like by visions of his lost love Mimi.

It's absolute nonsense - quite literally, of course, since we are perceiving events through a mind on the edge of complete breakdown. But at the same time that doesn't add or bring anything new to the state of mind of La Bohème's characters living on the margins of society, or to the nature of the relationships of love, friendship and camaraderie that develop between them in their straitened circumstances. Worse, Guth's transposition of it onto another planet in some science-fiction future runs the risk of actually distracting from the sentiments of the work; which is just wrong, even if you think that La Bohème is a sentimental work (which I don't).

The attempt to sustain the idea of course just becomes more and more ludicrous the longer it goes on. By Act III, the pilots have been driven to make a forced landing on a barren planet or moon, and the inevitability of their fate lost in the void of space - and a lack of oxygen to the brain - just pushes their delusions further into absurdity. Yes, you can probably make a connection between Rodolfo in a space suit cut off emotionally from a Mimi who contorts and cavorts in a red dress on an airless dusty moonscape - although you're more likely to think it's a wonder she's only coughing - but you would get that anyway from a traditional production without the added distraction.

Act IV is increasingly desperate, and I don't just mean for Rodolfo. With Schaunard and Colline already dead, their suits running out of air, Rodolfo starts to imagine himself and Marcello as part of some kind of cabaret act on the moon, complete with glittering strip curtain backdrop. Parpignol is still cavorting around as a mime artist (please!), not for the first time being presented as a kind of death-like master-of-ceremonies figure (cf. Herheim again). Full marks to Claus Guth for this effort at provocation - I sometimes feel the Paris audience deserve such baiting - but I don't think La Bohème deserves it.

I also felt curiously unmoved by Gustavo Dudamel's conducting of the score, which highlighted the delicacy of the composition but lacked any real feeling for the work. It floated along pleasantly enough, but never made any emotional connection with the drama, although it's hard to tell how much of that is down to the failings of the stage direction. The singing too felt merely adequate for the most part, Atalla Ayan's Rodolfo a little harsh-sounding and imprecise, but Nicole Car's Mimi certainly stood out, and Aida Garifullina was a sparkling Musetta - not bad for figments of Rodolfo's imagination and memory. I doubt that Guth's space-age production of La Bohème will be considered as imaginative or memorable, but it's unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.

Links: L’Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox