bohemeWhat does a great opera production do, and what does a bad production fail to do?  

Discussions of this subject reveal divisions as deep as those in arguments about the 2016 presidential election, and the discussions can be almost as acrimonious. Some operagoers believe a production should recreate what a composer and librettist would have seen in their time, albeit with modern technical capabilities. To the most conservative of these fans, even a cosmetic change to the prescribed time period (19th century instead of 18th or 13th, for example) is a betrayal.

Others accept a new production as an individual response to the material, and will embrace Regietheater rethinkings of familiar works if the results are absorbing as theater. Still others find a middle ground: do what you like with the sets and costumes, but stay faithful to the narrative.

We all have to decide where we are on this spectrum, and placement on it is not necessarily fixed. I know that in 2016 I enjoy things I would not have expected to enjoy in 2006. Sometimes I return to a Regietheater production that actually made me angry when I saw it at an earlier point of life and experience with the medium, and while I still do not like it, I have a mellower view. I can criticize it in a different way and see how it fell short, rather than being affronted that it was allowed to happen at all.

Similarly, a lesser traditional production that may have satisfied me years ago, because it stuck to the script and did not get in the way, now may displease me because it does not do or give enough.

Those who resist Regietheater often ask a good question when confronted with a production that takes liberties: “What if this were someone’s first performance of [title]?” The implication is that such an audience member would be confused and alienated, would get the wrong ideas about the work ostensibly being produced, perhaps would never set foot in an opera house again.

Of course, we all have to jump in somewhere, and in theater there are always risks. I remember the first Don Giovanni I saw. I already knew the music well from recordings, and I saw a local production with a good young cast. As the singing went, I was more fortunate than I could have known at the time. The Donna Anna went on to Wagner/Strauss success in Europe and has appeared at WNO and the Met in recent years. The Leporello (the clear crowd favorite) sings Leporello and Escamillo everywhere now. The Don Giovanni also has had a good career.

The production was as traditional as anyone could have wanted. If you looked at a still picture, you would have correctly guessed the opera immediately. Giovanni even had a plumed hat. But as I sat through scene after scene comparing what I was seeing to what I had heard on my recordings, and what I had read and knew, I thought, “Is this opera always so…dumb?” I do not think Don Giovanni is Mozart’s greatest opera, and I did not think so at the time, but it deserved better than this. The performers had been directed to behave like idiots. Unfortunately, I was sitting close enough for all the idiocy to land with force.

Most of the examples have left me, but one I remember was at the conclusion of the first act. Anna, Ottavio and Elvira, huddled together, advanced on a cornered and unarmed Giovanni like timid rabbits. All he had to do was raise his hands and let out a threatening yell and they scampered offstage in terror while he laughed. Making these characters so cowardly undermined their continuing search for vengeance in the second act to come.

The whole evening was like that. It was “traditional,” but it was ill-considered shtick with no dimension to it, no dignity about it. Maybe some people went home talking about how beautiful the clothes were, but I did not like to imagine it was “what Mozart and Da Ponte intended.”

I never held my bad first production against Don Giovanni. I went on to see better ones, and some that were equally bad in other ways.

I recently decided to put the “first performance” question to the test. I frequently have friends over to watch streams and DVD performances, and also have invited friends to Met HDs and to live performances within driving distance. I have had more than 40 unique guests since 2009, some of them being “one and done” (opera is not for everyone), others becoming regulars.

This outreach is something I think every opera buff should do. We can spend all our time worrying and complaining about attendance figures and criticizing pop music, or we can try to be part of the solution. You never know. Maybe someone you had over to watch Madama Butterfly in your living room will buy a ticket to Fanciulla del West sometime down the line, and one more seat will be filled.

Stefan Herheim‘s 2012 La bohème for Den Norske Opera is a “radical” production I think highly of. It has been available on DVD for four years. I will not formally review the production (which I call “La bohèmatology“), as that would extend this article to punishing length, and there would be no improving on Henson Keys‘s review in the parterre archive. I encourage you to pause and read Henson’s review if you are unfamiliar with the DNO Bohème. I agree with him on every point.

One thing I will add is that in Bohème and in other operas (Meistersinger, Pikovaya Dama), Herheim combines very old and more modern devices and techniques in a way that makes me think of another Scandinavian director, Ingmar Bergman.

The term “Bergmanesque” has come to mean something narrow in popular usage: austere settings, a tone of solemnity, anguished monologues, the contemplation of women’s faces. This is reductive. Bergman was about much more than that. He mingled psychology and dreams, eroticism and belief, magic and mystery. He grappled with big questions, and his body of work in film and on the stage had uncommon scope and vision. Herheim has similar audacity, and the comparison is intended as high praise. I hope someday to see original work by Herheim, who is still only in his forties. If I have a criticism, it is that he can pour so much creativity into the vessel of a repertory work that it is spilling over.

I had intended to show this production to three friends who had never seen Bohème (two were familiar with Larson’s Rent) and a fourth who had seen two traditional productions, a DVD of the famous 1981 Franco Zeffirelli and an undistinguished local performance. The friend who already knew Bohème ended up being otherwise engaged for the evening. He is a young philosophy professor, so I lost my Colline.

I asked the other three to brush up on a synopsis of the opera beforehand, which I always consider a good idea with a new opera, even in this age of simultaneous translations. It seemed especially advisable this time.

While we watched this Bohème, the level of engagement was high. Everyone was paying close attention, but I was aware that some good detail was passing for nothing. Some things Herheim does will only register if you know Bohème well, such as assigning ironic meanings to specific lines, and blocking “Oh! sventata, sventata!” in an almost satirically by-the-book fashion. For a few minutes, we could be looking at any Mimì and Rodolfo of any time since 1896, and the familiarity is comforting, both to the grieving hero and to us. Then Mimì sheds her period costume and wig and is again gowned, chemo-bald, dying. Again and again, reality intrudes upon the dream.

Two of three guests admitted in a break at the midpoint that they were confused by the production. We talked a little about what we had seen so far, and I encouraged them not to make up their minds until they had taken in the whole show.

The second half went better. The small crowd (in my living room, not in Oslo) clearly found Mimì’s “Donde lieta uscì […] Addio, senza rancor” very affecting as sung and acted by the gifted soprano Marita Solberg, and also as Herheim directs it: the spectral heroine’s granting of forgiveness from beyond, to her lover left behind. The death scene was likewise effective, with the ghostly Mimì appearing to strengthen the bond between the oft-quarreling Musetta and Marcello (a nurse and a maintenance worker in the production’s “outer” story), drawing their hands together.

I told the group I would be sending them a few questions to answer in writing once they had had a day or so to mull it over, and I encouraged them to be honest. All have graciously complied.

“Schaunard,” 47, works for a large law firm. He had seen eight prior operas within the last year, from which his favorites were Weinberg’s The Passenger (for “the compelling story and the brilliant set design,” despite 20th-century music he found challenging), Richard Jones‘s production of the complete Trittico (for the music and the commentary on human nature), and the David McVicar Roberto Devereux (“beautiful staging and costuming,” pleasing music, and an easy story to follow).

Of the three guests, Schaunard was least receptive to Herheim’s Bohème. “I found the first half confusing, didn’t appreciate the sterile modernism of the present-day hospital bed sitting there throughout the piece, and found the male lead’s unrelenting and exaggerated physical expressions of grief from beginning to end (dare I say) tedious. I would much prefer to have seen the story as a progression rather than a retrospective. I did, however, appreciate the “death figures” being portrayed by the same singer [Svein Erik Sagbraten]. In any event, I wouldn’t mind seeing a traditional version for comparison. I enjoyed the music, and appreciated the singing talent. It would be defensible to label me a philistine, I suppose. The more difficult to access a piece of art is, the more impatient I get.”

“Marcello,” 26, recently completed graduate school and works as a system/network administrator. Marcello has been the most enthusiastic of these three for seeing operas, even being willing to see two or three in a month. The Passenger was a previous favorite for Marcello too, among his 18. Two others were Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, and Manon Lescaut with Kristine Opolais and Alagna. He disliked the Wourinen/Proulx opera Brokeback Mountain and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride (a Regietheater take by Dmitri Tcherniakov).

Marcello, who had admitted to being confused by the Herheim Bohème in the early going, ultimately found it “incredible” for the way the unusual structure added layers of poignancy and grief even to what are happy moments on the page. He did say he might have preferred first to see Bohème the way it was “supposed to be done,” and then to see how it can be “altered to give a different meaning.” He liked the performance of the lead tenor (Diego Torre) more than Schaunard did above, and enjoyed the music. He would recommend this Bohème to someone who knows Bohème well.

Marcello’s thoughts on what makes a good production: he is interested in set design, and cited the Met’s sparse yet luminous Madama Butterfly (Michael Levine for Anthony Minghella) as well as the old-fashioned opulence of Julian Crouch‘s sets for the same theater’s Merry Widow. However, his favorite productions are the ones he remembers for having amazing acting and singing with a real star turn at the center, “such as Carmen. That woman [Garanca] was able to dance, sing and seduce anyone. ”

“Rodolfo,” 29, is a process consultant with a healthcare corporation. He had seen 12 operas prior to Bohème. The only one he had disliked was, again, Wourinen’s Brokeback Mountain. Favorites were the Jones Trittico, the Mariusz Trelinski-directed double bill of Iolanta/Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and the Otto Schenk Rusalka as seen in its final Met revival.

Rodolfo seemed the most affected by the Herheim Bohème when it was over, and asked if he could borrow the DVD to watch it a second time before submitting his thoughts. He ultimately wrote that it was “radical [but] interesting,” and believed it would work best for someone who had seen the opera before. “I was very grateful to have read a detailed synopsis of the work. Otherwise, I would have been lost in the blending of fantasy and reality. […] Instead of the sudden, gut-wrenching loss of Mimi in Act 4, the viewer has to deal with [the protagonist’s] bereavement through the entire opera. ”

Rodolfo too would recommend the production to others, because it “brings a new life to an old classic.” However, “a novice viewer would have to be able to actively think on her feet and pay close attention to the nuances of this production.”

Rodolfo does not feel he yet has “the critical ear to detect a fantastic vocal performance [as opposed to] a mediocre one.” He commented that, being used to the kind of entertainment that Hollywood offers, he is drawn to scenic beauty and stagecraft. On those levels, he appreciated the Herheim Bohème, with its vivid colors and ingenious transformations from hospital room to imaginary 19th-century Paris and back.

Henson wrote in his 2012 review:

The first lines of the essay in the DVD’s accompanying booklet […] 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).

I would say that my experiment gives validity to his comments. All three guests would have preferred their introduction to Bohème to be something more orthodox. The extreme-Regie treatment did give them problems orienting themselves, problems I have not seen with milder interventions such as putting Carmen in the 1930s or Falstaff in the 1950s.

That said, no one checked out on it. It held attention and there was appreciation for its qualities, even a few superlatives. Everyone present would gladly see another Bohème. Maybe there is a follow-up piece in that.

The opera’s conclusion remained powerful, and there were some watery eyes. I suppose there is no point in deciding whether to give the credit to singers Solberg and Torre, conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen and the orchestra, director Herheim and his production collaborators, composer Puccini and librettists Illica and Giocosa, or the author of the source book, Henri Murger. When a standard-repertory opera still works, it does so because of what everyone involved, living and dead, brought to it. We in the audience, who bring our own life experiences and feelings in with us, make a contribution as well.

Special thanks to “Rodolfo,” “Marcello” and “Schaunard” for making this piece better by contributing their time and their words. I hope it has been of some interest to the parterre readership.