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opera or soap opera?
on 22 March 2010
This is a perfect illustration of how a historically-accurate setting no more guarantees fidelity to the composer or librettist's intentions than an updated version violates them.
In the lengthy interview included as an extra, film-maker Robert Dornhelm underscores his adherence to Illica's libretto. Shooting entirely in Vienna with stills of 19th Century Paris, we have an opening that is strongly redolent of Illica's Christmas 1830 Latin Quarter setting. But in no time we've side-stepped to Hollywood 2010 with gimmicky cuts and back-tracks. Shots of Mimi long before she officially enters, supposedly overhearing the ruckus upstairs, do nothing to help the story. In fact they make a mockery of the simplicity of the initial exchanges between Mimi and Rodolfo
a simplicity and poignancy underlined by Puccini's music. In Dornhelm's version she's very much on the make, looking far more like Liz Taylor circa 1960 than a flower girl and the healthiest consumptive this side of the Styx.
I'm a Netrebko fan - check out my reviews of her I Puritani and Betrothal in a Monastery if you don't believe me. But here she's either totally miscast or misdirected. She tells us in her interview that previously Musetta has been her role, and that's probably where she should stay. The voice is in fine shape but the pathos just isn't there. Go to Freni or Scotto to hear how "Mi chiamano Mimi" should be performed.
Villazon, too, is in fine voice. In fact up to Mimi's entry I was quite enjoying this whole performance, Dornhelm's cinematic wizardry aside. His Rodolfo looks in far worse shape than Netrebko's Mimi. But that's perhaps not unfitting for bohemian life two hundred years ago. I found myself totally accepting his interpretation of Rodolfo, a romantic loser, an unsuccessful scribbler unable to help the person he loves most. Except that this fails to mesh with Netrebko's Mimi.
Act 2 is as bad as Act 1. Puccini's opening festive crowd music is a background for video of some general milling around on some street in Vienna. Momus, a Latin Quarter bistro with outside tables here becomes the inside of a Michelin 4 star restaurant with stuffy clientele and wandering violinists, hardly a bohemian student hangout. Musetta isn't a brassy broad making her sugar-daddy's life a misery by giving out her life story at full volume to the surrounding tables. No, she sort of gets up on stage to deliver it. I could live with all this if it illuminated the story but instead it makes a nonsense of what the librettist wrote. For starters, Illica's interaction between diners and the passing crowd just doesn't happen and the escape of Rodolfo, Mimi et al., leaving Musetta's beau with the bill doesn't come off.
Act 3 is by far the most effective with realistic snow, Mimi now looking not quite such a glamour-puss, and some fine acting from Villazon. Unless you know the story or understand Italian, the subtitles will leave you in some doubt as to what exactly is passing between her and Marcello regarding the breakdown of her relationship with Rodolfo. More about subtitles in a minute. The close of Act 3 is ham-fistedly done. In Puccini's music and Illica's libretto two separate and contrasting tete-a-tetes are happening. Dornhelm gives us some soap-opera knowing looks from Rodolfo and Mimi towards the other bickering couple. Worse than that though, he has the two main protagonists smooching eachother breathless into the distance, totally at odds with the bittersweet, hopeless resignation in the score.
Act 4 generally follows the accepted story line and Mimi at least looks a bit debilitated. The final shot, the camera receding skywards above a stage empty but for Mimi, is a coup. Would that there were more of them.
Orchestral support from the Bayerischern Runfunks under Bertrand de Billy is excellent, as is sound and video quality.
Enough. My experience of reviewing for Amazon tells me that most readers hit the "No" button for most two star reviews without bothering to read them. Fair enough. Nobody likes criticism of something they enjoy. But potential buyers need to be aware of a couple of facts, not opinions, that may influence their buying decision:
Firstly, the performance is lip-synched. I own, and wouldn't trade for anything, the lip-synched Bohm performances of Electra and Salome. But given their druthers I suspect most opera lovers would go for live every time and when singers and actors are not the same person (as they're not in the cases of Marcello, Schaunard and a few minor roles here), that's stretching it for many people.
Secondly, according to his interview Dornhelm is unaccountably proud of the work he's done on subtitles. They are atrocious. He has an excellent command of spoken English but I can't speak for his Italian and somewhere between the two there's a breakdown in places. More importantly they simply disappear for long stretches and those new to Boheme may find it difficult to pick up what's happening. They will certainly miss most of the libretto's poetry and subtleties.
La Boheme, one of the very greatest of operas, is not the luckiest on dvd. I own three versions, the Australian production which is superbly acted and decently sung, a very brave try but not quite top class; the Met version with Scotto and Pavarotti, gorgeously sung and acceptably-acted but showing its age in terms of both video and sound, and with an over-zealous prompter who ruins the show; and this one. None of them come even close to the Karajan cd with Freni and Pavarotti. Next stop for me will be the Zeffirelli version with Stratas and Carreras, and meanwhile I'll keep my fingers crossed for a new performance that does full justice to this magnificent work.