Death and its terrible aftermath hang like a pestilent fog over director Stefan Herheim’s fascinating and chilling production of Puccini’s La Bohème for Den Norske Opera, released here on DVD by Electric Pictures.  For even the most jaded sufferer from “Bohème fatigue,” this is a production not to be missed.

While it certainly counts as regietheatre from beginning to end, it is visually thrilling, every tiny detail clearly thought out, musically excellent, and uses the familiar young Bohemian characters to demand that the audience look at the ways that we deal with the death of a loved one.  

In Herheim’s vision, Mimi is dying of cancer, bald from chemotherapy and on life support.  The opera begins not with music, but with the relentless beeping of the heart monitor at her hospital bed.  The lights come up on Rodolfo at her bedside, with doctors, nurses, and hospital staff watching from a window outside in the halls.

When the heart monitor flatlines and the doctors rush in to try to shock Mimi back to life, the music of the opera begins over the chaos of CPR and heart-shock paddles.  At the moment of Mimi’s death, the production turns to the mind of the grieving Rodolfo.

With the hospital personnel assuming the roles of Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, and Musetta, Rodolfo begins to try to recreate his time with Mimi in a fevered dream caught between the sentimental story of his love for Mimi and the stark reality of her cruel march toward death.  As the set transforms into the various locales of the opera, the only constant on the stage is the hospital room, constantly pulling Rodolfo back to reality.

Herheim’s most brilliant conceit is adding the character of Death to the opera, in many guises.  One singer, Svein Erik Sagbraten, plays the capering, chilling Grim Reaper throughout the opera.  Here, we see Death as Benoit, as Parpignol (who mocks a cancer-victim young child by keeping the horse just outside the child’s  reach as he begs for the “cavallin”), as Alcindoro, as the Toll Gate Keeper, even as the bandleader in Momus, and finally as himself, accompanying the final act on his violin and watching dispassionately as Mimi sickens.  The effect is macabre and more than a little bit scary.

The Momus scene is genuinely frightening.  As Mimi and Rodolfo finish “O soave fanciulla”, the set opens to reveal a vision of the Paris streets.  The denizens of Paris begin to file in and watch the couple exiting with the “Amor!” and silently wave to them.  At the end of the scene, the entire group of Parisians turns silently, facing the audience, their faces in a rictus-like smile.

It is clear that this is going to be a nightmarish Momus scene, and that the lovers are trapped here with no escape.  The whole scene feels like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with Alcindoro (Death) controlling the proceedings, revealing all the Parisians as dead or dying when they all remove their wigs and hats to reveal their baldness.

Even the children’s chorus is involved, mocking the prostrate Mimi before they, too, are revealed as the sick and dying.  The end of the scene finds the bandleader (Death) taking Mimi by the arm and leading her away as Rodolfo is dragged away by his friends.  It is a carnival of death.

Another Herheim invention is setting up a rivalry between the maintenance worker (Marcello) and one of the doctors (Schaunard) for the affections of the lusty Nurse (Musetta).  It is clear from the very beginning of the opera that the Doctor has seduced her away from the maintenance man, and the two almost come to blows several times.

For instance, in Act One’s Benoit scene, it is Schaunard, not Benoit, who Marcello accuses of being a seducer.  As Death removes his “Benoit beard and hat” to reveal himself, he points at Rodolfo shrieking “Sua moglie!!!” instead of referring to his own wife.  Again, the effect is stunning and disturbing.

The production is absolutely crammed with detail and character development, but this occasionally becomes a problem.  There are so many interesting things going on at the same time that it’s often difficult to find where the main focus should be.  The character interplay is so dense and so interesting that we’d like to see it all; however, I missed many details until my second or third watching of the DVD.

The principal singers are mostly excellent, except for a strangulated and stiffly acted Doctor/Colline.  His “Vecchia zimarra, senti” is poorly sung and was as well one of the few seemingly purposeless moments in this very specific production.

Vasilij Ladjuk as Maintenance Guy/Marcello and Espen Langvik as Doctor/Schaunard sing robustly and act well their fierce rivalry.  Ladjuk is dark and blue-collar; Langvik is blond and distinctly upper class.  The Norwegian National Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus are superb here—the singing is splendid, and their acting of Herheim’s concept characters is committed and adds tremendously to the atmosphere of the production.

As the tormented Rodolfo, Diego Torre acts the desperation and uncertainty of his character with skill and powerful emotion.  He sings with a stentorian tenor reminiscent of Ermanno Mauro (which means he could use a few more colors and volume changes) but he is clarion and honeyed when he needs to be.  Most impressive was his ability in this production to show the utter confusion of a man who simply cannot accept his lover’s death.

Marita Solberg is a splendid Mimi, riveting in her acting, completely committed to Herheim’s ideas, singing with tonal beauty and a great variety of vocal colors.  Most interesting to me was that she bears an astonishing likeness to the young Renata Scotto in the 1977 Live From the Met Bohème.  She is costumed in a very similar dress as well (when playing the “Mimi of the past”) and, if you closed your eyes, you might well hear some phrasing and tonal similarities as well.  Of course it’s only speculation, but I wonder if Herheim was sneaking in an homage to Madame Scotto…?

The first lines of the essay in the DVD’s accompanying booklet (by Acting Artistic Director Anne Gjevang) are these: “Who among us doesn’t already have a personal relationship to La Bohème?  Probably a deep and intimate one: this opera, more than any other, strikes a chord that resonates in us where we are most sensitive.”

Well, I think this is certainly true of those who love opera, but I’m not sure that goes for newbies or those attending one of their first operas.  I therefore would not necessarily recommend this DVD to those who want the sentimental story of young love and tragedy (though I think my acting students and many of their generation would love it).

But Herheim has created a radical but logical rethinking of Puccini’s masterpiece that will reverberate in the watcher/listener for a long time after its viewing.  I felt compelled to watch it three times immediately.  It moved me, it made me think, it made me imagine.  And that’s what great opera productions are supposed to do.