What would you do if I asked you to take an old, faded version of Puccini’s score for La Bohème and fill in the unreadable parts with a mélange of disco, kabarett, and Alban Berg?
Add a pinch of hallucinogens (or maybe that was just my initial disorientation), and you may have something resembling Mimi, Frédéric Verrières’ Scènes de la vie de bohème, which just concluded its successful run at the edgy Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. Despite the often bizarre mise en scène by Guillaume Vincent, a boisterous cast of young singers, actors, and instrumentalists produce an exciting evening of theatre.
It is difficult to determine the target audience for Mimi. It was probably ideal for me, a 23-year-old with a deep appreciation for Puccini’s opera, but with a hunger for inventiveness. Yet I assume many of those who attended had no or little familiarity with the music of La Bohème, meaning that much of the musical humor would be lost on them.
Indeed many would have been attracted to Mimi for the opportunity to see Camélia Jordana—a 22-year-old French pop singer who placed third in Nouvelle Star in 2009—as Mimi 1, sharing the role with Judith Fa, a highly impressive and fierce young soprano. While the latter took care of Mimi’s more virtuosic musical moments, Ms. Jordana portrayed the dying seamstress with rawness mixed with disillusionment, often lacking the strength to sing through a vocal line and instead fading into whispers.
The piece roughly follows Puccini’s plot until the end of third act, when suddenly the bohemians appear to pick themselves off the couch and grow up. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before any notes are played or sung, audience members can orient themselves to the “trash-baroque”—to quote one French critic—world of our bohemian friends. (Set design is by James Brandily).
The round stage is lined with bare mattresses and along the perimeter we see the trappings of Rodolpho’s garret. There is half of an old car, a beanbag chair (I think) covered in a lion blanket, a guy shooting a paintball gun on a canvass, two old (muted) TVs playing different videos of La Bohème, including the Met’s version with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas. Behind the proscenium, the orchestra—L’Ensemble Court-circuit, led by Jean Deroyer—is set up, ready to take an atonal sledgehammer to beloved verismo tunes.
We first meet Mimi lounging alongside three girlfriends. Their laughter turns into an anarchic sing-off featuring almost unrecognizable snippets from Turandot and Tosca (Ms. Fa delivers a striking “Vissi d’arte” that turns the descending arpeggio on the word “Signore” into a staccato broken record). The thrashing and ‘lyrical’ screeching finally calms down—I hope these singers, who are miked, have good voice teachers—and we witness Rodolpho’s first encounter with Mimi.
The poor but warmhearted poet is played by young bass-baritone (!) Christian Helmer. When Mimi stumbles over to his apartment and asks for a light—the ladies expend a lot of energy walking over mattresses in high-inch stilettos—Rodolpho appears to be listening to two Bohème recordings simultaneously via headphones (one with Luciano Pavarotti and another with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.) The love scene unfolds with tentativeness and not a little awkwardness—in sharp contrast to the perfect pitch and pacing of the operatic recordings culminating in the duet, “O soave fanciulla.”
Helmer is a legit singer with a rather robust repertoire, though he only unleashes his strong voice at rare moments of confidence, usually opting for a more hushed, half-spoken tone, as if adding a question mark to each phrase. During a recitative, he and Jordana speak every second work that we hear on the recording, as if they are relying upon Pavarotti and the others to guide them through the scene.
Act two in Paris’s Latin Quarter—which often involves a carnival and an army of choristers of all ages—was especially hilarious. The orchestra members join the rest of the cast out in front, banging away on their instruments while partying the night away. We meet Musetta (the talented soprano Pauline Courtin), whose initially lovely waltz, “Quando me’n vo,” turns into a disco number midway through. Meanwhile, much of Musetta’s usual hysterics are passed over to “La comtesse Geshwitz,” a German kabarett songstress—the riotous “chanteuse-guitariste franco- allemande” Caroline Rose—who at one point shrieks in German at all the party people to look under the the mattresses for her purse. Mimi and Rodolpho are oblivious to all of this,”‘enjoying each other’s company” downstage right.
Winter arrives, and we know we are somewhere in the midst of Puccini’s melancholy third act. Mimi encounters Marcello, baritone Christophe Gay wearing short shorts and a wig, and she, increasingly ill and unhappy, begs for his help. Then they somehow end up discussing the nature of opera (I couldn’t catch the gist). The remainder of the piece diverges completely from the source material, as the characters appear to put on “adult clothes” and—amidst some jokes by Ms. Rose about Angela Merkel and French-German relations—repeat what is almost a mantra, “il faut que la bohème finisse.”
The ensemble moves on with their lives (or something), leaving Mimi alone to utter her final reflections while propped up against a fort of mattresses.
I want to emphasize that the diverse ensemble cast worked together cohesively, and Mr. Vincent’s direction likely had a hand in creating a rehearsal environment in which his performers felt free to take risks with one another. Ms. Fa deserves particular praise, not only for her commanding singing—in a role that seems to be roughly as demanding as Ariel in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest—but also for brilliantly complementing the more vulnerable performance by her fellow Mimi.
I was also impressed with Deroyer’s precise conducting—he was a beacon of stability amidst the chaos—and his musicians were game to don sequins and shades, and at one point to wave strange-looking noodles to create an inexplicable “whoosh” sound.
A French critic calls Mimi the first “souk-opéra.” I have absolutely no idea what that means, but I found Mimi riveting if at times unsettling. What drew me in was Verrières’ evident fascination with Puccini’s music and his fearlessness in ripping apart the most well-known melodies in opera, and uncovering the raw passion that makes La Bohème—and subsequently, Rent—so irresistible.