‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

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lennygoran
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‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by lennygoran » Fri Oct 27, 2017 7:39 pm

‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

By ZACHARY WOOLFE OCT. 27, 2017


LONDON — When Peter Gelb took over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera a decade ago, he had a list of aging productions he considered replacing. Among them was Franco Zeffirelli’s proscenium-filling, crowd-delighting, hyper-realistic 1981 staging of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” about love and death among a gang of starving artists in 19th-century Paris.

Mr. Gelb envisioned a new “Bohème” that would star Anna Netrebko. “It wasn’t an immediate target,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But it was something I started thinking about.”

“The idea that ‘Bohème’ would be off-limits was, in my youthful enthusiasm,” he added wryly, “something that I didn’t want to contemplate.”

Youthful enthusiasm yielded to mature experience — in particular, the bracing experience Mr. Gelb had when a stark new Luc Bondy production of Puccini’s “Tosca” set off an uproar when it replaced the Met’s grand Zeffirelli version in 2009. (A more traditional-looking “Tosca” arrives on New Year’s Eve.)

Now, asked what the public’s response would be if he did announce he was changing the beloved “Bohème,” performances of which continue at the Met through March, Mr. Gelb chuckled and said, “I’m not going to find out.”


Mr. Gelb’s tenure at the Met has brought a new “Carmen,” “Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Barber of Seville,” “Rigoletto,” “Cav/Pag” and “Ring” cycle. A new “Aida” is coming in a few seasons (starring Ms. Netrebko). The central repertory has been, for better and worse, almost entirely overhauled over the past 10 years. “La Bohème” alone remains untouchable.

It occupies a position in the canon that is unusual even by opera’s stubbornly backward-looking standards, particularly in Europe. The Vienna State Opera and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan both still use Zeffirelli stagings from 1963, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich continues to present an Otto Schenk one from 1969.

But this fall brings a highly unusual coincidence: new productions of the opera at two of Europe’s most important houses. At the Royal Opera in London, Richard Jones’s fresh version — the company’s first since 1974 — recently finished its premiere run here and will return in June. And on Dec. 1, the Paris Opera will unveil Claus Guth’s provocative staging, set a century from now.

These new takes on this classic of classics raise the question of whether “La Bohème” should be messed with at all. We seem to have an almost instinctive desire for this piece to remain the same, to be the opera we encountered as children. Is that something we should resist or accept?

And if it’s indeed fair game for new approaches: How? When a director sets Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at, say, the dawn of industrialization, it illuminates new aspects of a deep, ambiguous work. But while doing “Bohème” in the 1950s or, à la “Rent,” in the AIDS-era East Village may involve a change of clothes, it’s still the same, simple love story.

So forget should you do a new “Bohème”: Can you do a new — a really new — “Bohème”? Is there an approach to this work that isn’t just moving the attic stove, a fixture of the libretto, from stage right to left to center?

Mr. Jones’s strong, even hyperbolic, Royal Opera production tries diligently to bridge old-fashioned and progressive. It begins with the element perhaps most associated with the piece: snow, already falling gently onstage in front of the curtain as the audience enters.

The Victorian-era costumes are detailed and elaborate, a contrast with the austere settings, often flooded in harsh frontal lighting. There is hardly any furniture in the young bohemians’ Paris garret, making the space resemble an empty stage. The audience can see the backstage workings throughout: the lighting rigs, even the snow machine tube rotating overhead in the flies.

The sets of previous acts are visible just offstage; scene changes take place in full view. You can see stagehand markings in chalk on the back of the set pieces; the characters then make their own charcoal drawings — musical notes and all — in the final act. We are in a theater, Mr. Jones is at pains to remind us, and this is an opera.

Within this lightly Brechtian frame, the acting is more or less naturalistic, with a few cartoonish touches. In the first act, when she comes upstairs to light her candle, the already ill Mimì faints dead away; rather than being concerned, Rodolfo is almost amused, tapping her with his foot. In the second act, at Café Momus, the hellcat Musetta doesn’t just flirt with the crowd but pulls off her underwear and throws it; she and her estranged lover, Marcello, boisterously kiss the same woman. (Suffice to say a bit of casual bisexuality isn’t on offer in most “Bohème” productions.)

The staging manages to infuse the old war horse with a genuine mood — a real, if occasionally exaggerated, melancholy — without alienating those looking for hoop skirts and a parade at the end of Act 2. But in the end, it’s more or less just a shift of the stove.

The coming Paris production, the details of which are being closely kept, will not be nearly so indulgent of audience expectations. “The second the curtain opens, you have a fist in your face,” Mr. Guth, the director, said in a phone interview.

Mr. Guth, acclaimed for stylized, even surreal productions that nevertheless remain moored to reality, hadn’t thought his style was a good match for Puccini, and he didn’t like the clichés about artists endemic to “Bohème” stagings. But listening to the music alone and brainstorming conceptual approaches brought him to the 1851 Henri Murger book on which the libretto is based.

“In the end,” he said, “it turns out that these men meet again. They look back, and they are not now artists. They are now established bourgeoisie. They remember their youth, when they were doing wild stuff.”

So his “Bohème,” which will star Sonya Yoncheva and Atalla Ayan and be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, takes the form of a kind of flashback to a lost time — much as Paris today, he observed, is a kind of fantasy of what the city once was.

“He wants to put ‘La Bohème’ at the end of the 21st century, in the future,” Stéphane Lissner, the general director of the Paris Opera, said in an interview in his office. “To speak about what is the artist’s situation, what is the memory we have of the past.”

The marketing image on the company’s website is a futuristic-looking pod, which is apparently where at least some of the action will take place. This radical intervention replaces Jonathan Miller’s staging from 1995, which updated the opera to the 1930s Left Bank but otherwise left it mostly alone. That staging has, Mr. Lissner said, “not one idea for me. The Jonathan Miller is for me absolutely nothing. So it’s time to try.”

Mr. Guth’s concept bears some similarity to the director Stefan Herheim’s, unveiled in Oslo in 2012 and available on a crucial DVD. That production uses the traditional storybook sets of the Norwegian National Opera’s 1963 “Bohème,” but begins with a bleakly modern scene: a hospital room in which a man’s lover has just died of cancer.

The “La Bohème” we know then emerges as his fantasy of her recuperation, though a fantasy shot through with intimations of darkness and death. As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the doctors and nurses from the hospital also populate this Rodolfo’s dream world; it is one of the saddest, loveliest spectacles I’ve ever seen.


Mr. Herheim’s staging is about loss and denial. It’s also about what we seek from opera, the kind of escape into an idyllic past — our culture’s and our own — that we get from productions like Mr. Zeffirelli’s, which over the past 35 years at the Met has played nearly 500 performances and sold 650,000 tickets.

I would not want to be without Mr. Herheim’s vision, which celebrates, without undue indulgence, the sentimentality that permeates “La Bohème.” But I’ve lately been more than reconciled to the Zeffirelli, the age and familiarity of which have added a poignancy that enhances the piece — that, in some sense, completes it.

I felt differently about the Met’s ancient production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” finally replaced last season. The old staging had grown dull and dowdy — and besides, “Rosenkavalier” is not just a simulacrum of 18th-century Vienna but is also about what the new version, set on the cusp of World War I, made more vivid: the change of generations, the war of the classes, the end of a world.

The old “Rosenkavalier” didn’t evoke any of those depths; the Zeffirelli “Bohème,” on the other hand, really does give us “La Bohème,” in all its shallow brilliance and beauty. The nostalgia we feel for it has become as much a part of the opera as Puccini’s score. I look forward to the avant-garde iteration of the staging that will commence in a few decades, when the singers will need to negotiate a literally decomposing set; what better symbol of Mimì’s fatal consumption?

But, until then, why move the stove merely to move it?

“Whether you like them or don’t like them, we have changed the core repertory at the Met,” Mr. Gelb said. “This is a piece that just defies that agenda.”


https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/arts ... front&_r=0

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 27, 2017 9:40 pm

Mr. Jones’s strong, even hyperbolic, Royal Opera production tries diligently to bridge old-fashioned and progressive.
Reminds me of the time when I was teaching math in Maryland at a Catholic high school when I remarked that Jesus taught in parabolas, to which one of my wittier colleagues replied that when he really wanted to make a point, he used hyperbolas. (Both terms for conic sections are actually etymologically related to parable and hyperbole.)

It is hard to form an opinion on this. John F has stated that only this opera and Gianni Schicchi are important to him in the Puccini output, a position I cannot agree with. The article seems to have premises that the author expects everyone to agree with, though I do not.

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by lennygoran » Sat Oct 28, 2017 6:30 am

jbuck919 wrote:
Fri Oct 27, 2017 9:40 pm
It is hard to form an opinion on this. John F has stated that only this opera and Gianni Schicchi are important to him in the Puccini output, a position I cannot agree with. The article seems to have premises that the author expects everyone to agree with, though I do not.
Well a few updates have worked but in general they've been terrible-I'd chance an HD experience with an update but as for actually investing in a Met experience with all the time and money that it takes I'm probably not going to go for it. OTOH Sue really wanted to see this new Cosi taking place in Coney Island live so I bought tickets for it-I had been holding out for only the HD if that. Regards, Len :lol:

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 28, 2017 6:35 am

Opera on Coney Island? Now I've heard everything. :lol:

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by lennygoran » Sat Oct 28, 2017 7:00 am

Well I'll let you know after we see it in March. Now I've looked at some photos in a London review and this new Boheme doesn't look that bad and the review doesn't make it sound that radical. Regards, Len



Andrew Clements



By the time it was finally retired in 2015, the Royal Opera’s previous production of La Bohème, crammed with detail and affectionately directed by John Copley, had become a cherished institution, notching up 25 revivals in its 41-year history. The odds are that its replacement, directed by Richard Jones with sets and costumes by Stewart Laing, won’t last quite as long, but it has clearly been designed for permanence – an uncontroversial mainstream staging that can be brought back again and again without the danger of anyone tiring of it. In fact what Jones and Laing have come up with isn’t a million miles away from the show that it has replaced.


Perhaps the verismo world of 19th-century Paris that Puccini creates for Bohème really does resist deconstruction, other than straightforward cosmetic translations into more modern settings. This production doesn’t even opt for that, but takes the original as a given, without any friction or attempts at stylisation at all. The bohemians’ stripped down garret of the outer acts may be historically neutral, but the lavish setting for the second act, complete with arcades, a swanky restaurant interior and Christmas Eve crowds who look as though they’ve just stepped off the sides of a tin of Quality Street, would satisfy the most demanding literalist.
Simona Mihai as Musetta, centre, with Florian Sempeyas Schaunard, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Nicole Car (Mimi) and Luca Tittoto (Colline) in La bohème at the Royal Opera House, directed by Richard Jones.


It’s put on stage with Jones’s usual efficiency and precision, but always remains mechanical and emotionally chilly – antiseptic really. The performances are certainly efficient, too, but only Nicole Car’s touching, genuinely aware Mimi comes across as a three-dimensional character. However, even then her relationship with Michael Fabiano’s preening, unvaryingly loud Rodolfo doesn’t ring true. Whatever’s going on between Marcello (Mariusz Kwiecień) and Musetta (Simona Mihai, who takes over as Mimi later in the run) isn’t investigated either, any more than the friendship of the four men, with Luca Tittoto as Colline and Florian Sempey as Schaunard, is really explored. Why are they there, one wants to know, and is their poverty real or not? All the real emotional intensity and dramatic engagement has to come from the pit. Antonio Pappano certainly conducts the score superbly, relishing every detail, but there needs to be passion on stage, too.






https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/ ... use-london

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by John F » Sat Oct 28, 2017 10:05 am

Misleading headline from the NY Times. This isn't about changing "La Bohème," it's about possibly replacing a 36-year-old production of it. After all this time, the physical scenery of Zeffirelli's production may be getting dangerous for the cast to walk on, and it may need rebuilding. for such massive and detailed scenery that would be enormously expensive, and unlike a new production, merely fixing up an old one does not attract a big donation. But by now, the scenery and the opera itself sell the tickets, since star singers and conductors normally aren't interested and the Met can't offer top-flight talent. So the Met might as well stay with what it's got and hope nobody gets hurt.

The last time the cast and conductor outshone this production was in 1988, when Carlos Kleiber conducted and the cast included Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, and Thomas Hampson as Schaunard. For comparison, look at this season's cast:

Mimì....................Angel Blue [Debut]
Rodolfo.................Dmytro Popov
Musetta.................Brigitte Kele
Marcello................Lucas Meachem
Schaunard...............Duncan Rock [Debut]
Colline.................David Soar
Benoit..................Paul Plishka
Alcindoro...............Paul Plishka
Parpignol...............Daniel Clark Smith
Sergeant................Yohan Yi
Officer.................Ross Benoliel

Conductor...............Alexander Soddy [Debut]

I was amazed to see that Paul Plishka is still singing; he's 76 years old. If the Met doesn't want to retire the Zeffirelli "Bohème," it should certainly retire Plishka!
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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by maestrob » Sat Oct 28, 2017 12:13 pm

Well, Zefirelli's staging of Boheme is still a hit: Why "fix" something that ain't broken???? Boheme is one of the standards, like Tosca, where the directions for the staging are contained in the music as much as in the stage directions. These two operas are money-makers for the MET and around the world as is: that's why they sell so well, both to native New Yorkers as well as tourists. Like Len, I am steeped in the traditions of great operas, and despise "updated" productions that crash head-on into the motives in the plot. History changes people and their motivations, something that Luc Bondy forgot when he trashed Tosca.

I'm glad that Gelb is leaving Boheme alone for now. Good choice.

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by karlhenning » Sat Oct 28, 2017 12:20 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Sat Oct 28, 2017 6:35 am
Opera on Coney Island? Now I've heard everything. :lol:
And yet . . . it's so right!

Cheers,
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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by jserraglio » Sat Oct 28, 2017 1:00 pm

John F wrote:I was amazed to see that Paul Plishka is still singing; he's 76 years old. If the Met doesn't want to retire the Zeffirelli "Bohème," it should certainly retire Plishka!
Other age-related throwaways — Dusty Baker, 68, John Farrell, 55 and Joe Girardi, 53.
Last edited by jserraglio on Sat Oct 28, 2017 4:00 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by lennygoran » Sat Oct 28, 2017 1:12 pm

John F wrote:
Sat Oct 28, 2017 10:05 am
Misleading headline from the NY Times. This isn't about changing "La Bohème," it's about possibly replacing a 36-year-old production of it.
John this is so true-I was thinking one of those updates I usually hate-the photos show what looks like an interesting new production! Regards, Len :D

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Re: ‘La Bohème’: Should Opera’s Most Beloved Classic Be Changed?

Post by barney » Sat Oct 28, 2017 11:07 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sat Oct 28, 2017 12:13 pm
Well, Zefirelli's staging of Boheme is still a hit: Why "fix" something that ain't broken???? Boheme is one of the standards, like Tosca, where the directions for the staging are contained in the music as much as in the stage directions. These two operas are money-makers for the MET and around the world as is: that's why they sell so well, both to native New Yorkers as well as tourists. Like Len, I am steeped in the traditions of great operas, and despise "updated" productions that crash head-on into the motives in the plot. History changes people and their motivations, something that Luc Bondy forgot when he trashed Tosca.

I'm glad that Gelb is leaving Boheme alone for now. Good choice.
I saw the Zefirelli staging in my treasured New York visit of April 2016. It was a (relatively) low rent cast: Rodolfo: Bryan Hymel ten, Mimi: Maria Agresta sop, Marcello: Levente Molnar bar, Colline: Roberto Tagliavini bass, Schaunard: Alessio Arduini bass, Musetta: Aily Perez mezzo, Benoit: Paul Plishka, Parpignol: Daniel Clark Smith, Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Dan Ettinger
But it was nevertheless an outstanding production for me, and I will treasure it as long as I have two brain cells to rub together. I would be happy to see the same production again and again, if I were so privileged, just as I am happy to hear the same notes. Of course I don't think there's only one way to do it, but I think Zefirelli's way is wonderful.

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