It’s a curious fact that two of the three most popular operas; Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème, are about women dying from tuberculosis. It’s also curious that they are almost always presented as frothy escapist fantasies in which Death makes his appearance only in the tear jerking finale. It’s very curious because Death stalks the libretto of both operas, albeit usually well hidden behind brocade, champagne and Christmas decorations. In 2005, at Salzburg, Willy Decker broke with convention and made Death an explicit actor in La Traviata creating the famous red dress production that has even been seen at that bastion of conservatism the Metropolitan Opera. In 2012 Stefan Herheim did something similar for La Bohème in Oslo.
Herheim’s approach is even more radical than Decker’s. Before the music starts we see Mimi, bald headed, in intensive care. She is dying from cancer. Rodolfo is at her bed side. As her heart stops beating and the medical teams tries to revive her the music starts. What follows takes place mostly in Rodolfo’s imagination. At times he is seeing Mimi’s ghost. At others he seems to be imagining them in a traditional production of the opera. It might even be riffing off a particular production; perhaps the San Francisco one with Pavarotti and Freni? Death is omniprescient. Rodolfo snaps back to the reality of the hospital room from time to time and, very cleverly, a host of minor parts; Alcindoro, Benoit, Parpignol, the Toll Gate Keeper, are given to the same singer who clearly is Death. Just as an example we can look at Act 2 which opens with a conventionally Dickensian jolly Christmas scene but becomes much more sinister as the children become almost feral with the entry of a very scary Parpignol and which ends with Mimi being marched off by the Drum Major; Death again.
There are a series of very short interviews on the disk which are worth watching. The key one, which lasts scarcely two minutes, is with the director. He makes two claims. “Rodolfo reanimates the dead Mimi as we must reanimate opera” and “We use opera to escape reality”. These ideas are brilliantly explored in this production.
The performances are generally pretty good though the singing isn’t absolutely top drawer. Marita Söllberg gives a very committed and convincing performance as Mimi. At times her tone is a little thin but maybe that’s forgivable in a ghost. Jennifer Rowley is a wonderful Musetta. She has the voice for the part and whether she’s the sexy nurse or the good time girl she convinces. Svein Erik Sagbråten is brilliant in the many roles of Death. Solid singing and excellent acting combine here to make much more than the sum of the parts. Vasilij Ladjuk is a solid Marcello. The weak link is perhaps Diego Torre’s Rodolfo. He’s got the notes but doesn’t sound especially idiomatic and his acting is rather one dimensional with a limited range of stock gestures. Eivind Gullberg Jensen conducts efficiently; no small order given how much is going on on stage. The orchestral and choral forces of the Royal Norwegian Opera are fine, especially the children who show some really acting talent in the changing moods of Act 2.
The video director is Stein-Roger Bull. He’s not that bad but there’s a lot going on in this production and I think watching the disk we miss a good chunk of it which is a shame. Picture quality on Blu-ray is excellent and the surround sound, if not perhaps as detailed and spacious as some Blu-rays, is still better than most DVDs. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Korean, Spanish and Italian. The booklet contains a synopsis (oddly the standard story with no reference to this production) and a timed track listing.
This is a very interesting take on a “warhorse”. It injects some real emotional intensity into a work that can easily be made to seem routine. It makes for terrific theatre. Recommended for all but the hard core traditionalist.