When Stuart Laing's production of Puccini's hugely popular masterpiece was first staged in 2004, the Scottish Executive had just told Scottish Opera: 'your tiny budget is frozen'. It was just before a performance of La Bohème–ten minutes before going on stage, according to contemporary reports—that the chorus was informed that they were to be made redundant.
Knowing that La Bohème is in some respects autobiographical on Puccini's part—by extension, in a sense, a biography of opera, does this production offer any commentary on the biography of Scottish Opera? It seems to me that the basic premise—relocating the action from mid-19th century Paris to the contemporary New York loft scene is a strong one, but the ineptitude with which the idea has been thought through leaves one frustrated and bemused. Instead of an adaptation intended to do service to Puccini's intention, the production seems—at least in part—to be intended as a swipe at the 'pretensions' of a certain 'elite', using Puccini—and by extension, his audience—as a vehicle (not that the latter seems to mind).
The original New York loft scene emerged out of exactly the same kind of poverty allied to total, uncompromising commitment that can be found in Murger's novel . But that was fifty years ago and more. Back then, Robert Rauschenberg beat his landlord down from $15 a month to $10 a month. I doubt that there's anything in present-day Williamsburg that is remotely comparable. Again, one would expect a realization of New York to pay attention to the city's vibrant ethnic diversity. That is a key aspect of the original novel: its narration of the ordinary experience of urbanization was innovative in its day. This production is more like an episode of Friends—The One Where Monica Dies, maybe.
Marcello the artist gets updated to Marcello the video artist. That could work—the idea allows projectors to create moving images on the back wall of the loft. Rodolfo the writer works at a laptop. It's hard to tear pages out of a laptop and put them on the fire, so the video projection has to stand in, with fiery imagery displayed on one wall in contrast to the snowy imagery on the other. But all that stuff about how cold it is: just words. Rodolfo comes in complaining about the cold… in his shirtsleeves! There's another thing: costumes. The cast just didn't look bohemian. No long hair; no cropped/shaved hair; no leather jackets: they looked like nerds.
How Marcello's room is set up really sets up the audience's evaluation of the whole drama in significant ways: being a visual artist, the semiotics of his personal space speaks not only about his own tastes, competences and so on, but the evaluation bears on his choice of friends too. The text affords no guidance: there is no connection between Schnauer's musicianship and the score; beyond a couple of references to Plato, there is nothing especially philosophical about Colline's discourse. Apart from their mutual friendship with Marcello, we only have Puccini's word for it (or his librettist, if you want to be pedantic) that they practice their chosen disciplines.
Act II relocates the street fair to a gallery, punning no doubt on Momus/MoMA. That could work, too. It’s a pity that the 'exhibits' are so hamfistedly naff. If the main characters are to be credible, it seems to me, then they should be expected to have good taste. All the same, that kind of a dimension is a distraction from the opera's focus on the simple human story.
By the time Act IV returns to the garret/loft, another disadvantage of the conversion becomes apparent. The space needs cast members distributed in it (think Edward Hopper), which has the effect of disconnecting them from each other just when their friendship and mutual concern is at its most intense.
That emotional story brings in the audiences, and it is the principals' performances that they care about. Between them, Avi Klemberg's Rodolfo and Celine Byrne's Mimi generated a solidly convincing intimacy. True, Klemberg's acting is a little wooden, and his voice isn't quite powerful enough to soar above the orchestra when the latter is at full throttle, but he gave his character a thoughtful and satisfying lyricism, investing energy in the vocal, rather than the visual, aspect of his performance. Byrne's is the more difficult task, balancing sensuousness in the first act with physical distress in the third and fourth. She has a natural rich warmth, which admirably complemented Klemberg's ardour.
Julian Hubbard's Schnauer was perhaps the most vividly theatrical of the principals; Christian Sist's Colline, by contrast, was sober and severe—he'll make a fine Commendatore one day. Benjamin Bevan and Nadine Livingston took a while to generate the chemistry that offsets Mimi and Rodolfo, but they really hit the groove in the Act III quartet—a piece of tremendous virtuosity on Puccini's part, given splendid support by the orchestra under their emergency conductor, Derek Clark.
Photos by Eamonn McGoldrick
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