Ever since its inception in 1896, La bohème has managed to endure all manner of directional assaults ranging from Benedict Andrews’ heroin-addicted heroine at ENO to Claus Guth’s recent space odyssey outrage for the Opéra de Paris. In Hamburg, Guy Joosten’s production from 2006, with Johannes Leiacker’s inventive set designs, manages to modernise the setting and action without any alarming dramaturgical aberrations. There were actually some amusing ideas in a mise-en-scène which was consistently captivating.

<i>La bohème</i> © Bernd Uhlig
La bohème
© Bernd Uhlig

The curtain opens on a present day, open-fronted, three storey apartment building similar to Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s “Downton Abbey” production of Le nozze di Figaro” in Salzburg. But this was no cute Queen Mary’s Doll’s House. Chez bohèmes is closer to a tawdry bedsit in La Goutte d’Or. Adjoining apartments are also in view, several with jolly Christmas decorations, complete with other tenants watching TV or sitting around looking bored. Mimì lives directly above the skint musketeers and spends most of Act 1 in bed. Benoît resides next door with his diminutive wife. There were a few pardonable textual incongruities, such as the toast to Louis Philippe and the Bohemians’ one-room shoe-box was so tiny Marcello had no easel, there was no table to set and only one very small bed which would be cramped for two, let alone four hearty youths. Fraternité in extremis. In an original piece of business, Schaunard brings Benoît’s scrawny wife into the room to overhear her husband bragging about his philandering. Hélas!

<i>La bohème</i> © Bernd Uhlig
La bohème
© Bernd Uhlig
Café Momus is a retro 1960s diner with an enormous sculptured head dominating the rear looking like one of the colossal statues guarding the gates to Argonath in The Lord of the Rings. In a clever coup de thèâtre the jaw drops to reveal Parpignol in a Santa suit, whining “Ecco i giocattoli”. Musetta delivers a striptease “Quando m'en vo” preening on top of the bar and, in jumping down, plausibly injures her foot.

In the Barrière d'Enfer scene, the tavern becomes a maison de passe where, presumably, not only Musetta but also Marcello feel quite at home. In another inspired production idea, the return to the garret in Act 4 reveals that the building has been abandoned and the penurious gamins are more or less squatters. They have resourcefully doubled the size of their salon by hacking through the wall into Benoît’s former flat.

Faithful to Henri Murger’s original Scènes de la vie de bohème, the cast was seemingly young and visually credible. Even Benoît is far from “molto di più” older than his errant tenants and Musetta’s Alcindoro is a rich Asian boy toy.

There was a highly commendable ensemble feel to this performance even if there were no real individual vocal triumphs. Zak Kariiti’s Schaunard was the least impressive of the lads and Alexander Roslavets a suitably sombre Colline with a seamless transition to the lower register. Turkish baritone Kartal Karagedik sang a convincing Marcello with a consistently round timbre and engaging stage presence. It is almost impossible not to score a success with Musetta but whilst Katerina Tretyakova was suitably slattern, there was a disturbing vibrato and the abundance of high Bs in “Quando m'en vo” were more shrill than seductive. With long curly black locks and a preppy sporty figure, Arturo Chacón-Cruz looked like a Rodolfo straight out of central casting. Regrettably his vocally qualities were not quite so peerless. There were some really electrifying top Cs such as the fermata “speranza” in “Che gelida manina” but also a tendency to sing slightly sharp in the higher tessitura. Appoggiaturas were dilatory and phrasing lacked elegance.

<i>La bohème</i> © Bernd Uhlig
La bohème
© Bernd Uhlig

Romanian soprano Iulia Maria Dan has the big advantage of looking like Nicole Kidman without the acting expertise. “Mi chiamano Mimì” was unremarkable, but her voice opened impressively in “Se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d'amor!” and duo passages with Rodolfo were more successful.

The première of Bohème was conducted by the 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini who, by any measure, is a hard act follow. Stefano Ranzani kept to uncontroversial tempi and was conspicuously considerate of his singers. The dynamic range of the score is huge, and Ranzani was faithful to the many piano markings some of which are actually ppppp. The violin postlude to “Mimì tu più non torni” was fittingly wistful and woodwinds were impressive with some fine flute playing. Several majestic orchestral crescendi such as “quando vien lo sgelo” lacked puissance but the “fremon già nell’anima” instrumental reprise induced more passion from the Hamburg strings.

This Bohème was a case of a contemporary setting actually enhancing Puccini’s timeless music and showed a director mindful of Salieri’s axiom “prima la musica, e poi le parole”. Yay for Joosten.  

***11