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Opera Club: Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’

La Bohème
By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after Henry Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème


After an Easter break, we are back for our ‘classic’ opera this week at Berlin’s Komische Oper, with one of the central pillars of international opera repertoire; Puccini’s La Bohème, directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Barrie Kosky. The narrative of La Bohème, which was based on a novel by Henry Murger, follows the burgeoning love between penniless artist Rodolfo and equally penniless needlewoman Mimì in late 19thcentury Paris, where life is brimming, but poverty and sickness are never far away.

While Barrie Kosky has staged pieces from a great variety of opera traditions and time periods to great acclaim at Komische Oper (such as Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and Shostakovich’s The Nose), he has most recently made international furore with his exuberant productions of the jazzy operettas of the Weimar Republic. It would be unfair to reduce Kosky’s stylistic eclecticism to these wonderful productions, but the flamboyance of his recent Orpheus in the Underworld (for Salzburg) or Oscar Straus’ Die Perlen der Cleopatra certainly invited curiosity about his take on La Bohème, which is loved by many, but also often dismissed as overly sentimental.

Maybe surprisingly, it didn’t take a radical concept to shed layers of stuffy performance traditions in Kosky’s beautiful production from last season – it took one clear idea taken directly from the piece; an idea so simple and obvious that it is surprising how little it seems to have been explored with similar consequence elsewhere: La Bohème is about youth and its carefreeness, and it is essentially about the trauma of young people being confronted with their own mortality. A stylistic device chosen by Kosky and his design team (Rufus Didwiszusand Victoria Behr) is a late 19th century camera, which recurs as a motif throughout. The composition of La Bohème, premiered in 1896, coincided with the development of the first photographic process, the Daguerreotype. These photographs – designed to capture a fleeting moment for eternity but fading with time – are an apt replacement for the usual depictions of Rodolfo as a painter. Musically, this production is exciting too, with a young cast – led by its trio of Nadja Mchantaf as Mimì, Jonathan Tetelmann as Rodolfo and Vera-Lotte Böcker as Musetta – bringing an agile, fresh sound to the score. Music director Jordan de Souza lets Puccini’s colours shine, allowing for the music’s dramatic weight to come through, but avoiding sentimentality.

Komische Oper Berlin
Sung in Italian, with English surtitles

Previous ‘Opera Club’ recommendations here: