Memories of Another Past: Stefan Herheim’s La bohème

NorwayNorway Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Norwegian National Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor), Oslo Opera, 23.1.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Stefan Herheim
Sets and Costumes: Heike Scheele
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier- Dörzenbach
Lighting: Anders Poll

Rodolfo: Diego Torre
Marcello: Vasilij Ladjuk
Mimi: Marita Sølberg
Musetta: Jennifer Rowley
Colline: Giovanni Battista Parodi
Schaunard: Espen Langvik

From my visits there so far, it feels as if the Oslo Opera hasn’t quite yet found itself since moving into the gorgeous, modern new building on Oslo’s harbourfront (one of the finest there are, inside and out). But amid cringe-worthy provincial productions that still hail from the old house (Tosca, Nutcracker), there are also signs of greater aspirations. Stefan Herheim’s Lulu from 2011 (produced for Copenhagen) was one such touch of world-class that matched the company’s building in class.

Another one was its ‘native’—Norwegians Stefan Herheim and Eivind Gullberg Jensen respectively directing and conducting— production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème which premiered earlier this year. It was an opportunity for the opera’s 1400 seat main auditorium to shine in a hopelessly sold out run that had the feel of an ‘event’ about it. Theory and practice don’t always match, alas, and there was something about this celebration of opera remained elusive.

Was it that the cast that couldn’t fill Herheim’s imaginative but mildly confusing production with the necessary life that would have made it take off? Especially Diego Torre’s Rodolfo was so dourly acted that he made your average stick look positively lithesome. And indeed, Vasilij Ladjuk’s Marcello did look positively lithesome next to Torre—and further earned points for his mellifluous baritone while Torre presented a loud yet strangely tone-less tenor that had little more charm than his stock gestures.

The backdrop to this was a heady mix of the new and old: Herheim seems to have stuffed his production with many nostalgic inside references to his earliest music-theatre experiences, while gently twisting the hoary story of our second-favorite operatic TB patient. And so we get Mimì as a cancer patient in a hospital environment trapped in Oslo Opera’s old, traditional Bohème set there. The stage opens to an intensive care unit where Mimì —Marita Sølberg, the third domestic touch of excellence—dies while the tenor mopes. The music of the overture begins the moment the defibrillator is administered Mimì’s corpse, just after the ECG’s projected green thread shows her rhythmic heart gave way to the long, flat line.

In the first two acts, the alternative Mimi-universes—heavily promoted—strain the story considerably, and elucidate little. Acts three and four go by more conventionally and now the equation of Mimi’s either inevitable or slow or already-occurred death shows to have some very touching moments. None of the quibbles seemed to dent the air of festive excitement, amid the best elements were Sølberg’s singing, Jennifer Rowley’s lively stage presence as Musetta, and the august, if inconspicuous, Espen Langvik’s Schaunard. Svein Erik Sagbråten portrayed death in various incarnations— Benoît, Alcindoro, the customs Sergeant, and even Parpignol—always accompanied by actual or symbolic knocking and always in costumes that looked like taken out of the old opera house’s costume magazine., including aforementioned Nutcracker. Within all this circus spectacle of death, Herheim’s attempt to cleave traditionalism and intelligent modern staging came across as admirable, even while never quite coming to life.

Jens F. Laurson