2.0. Placed at the end of well-known, traditional and reliable things, these numerical digits emphasize subtly that these things are not so familiar any more. In combination with the title of Puccini’s La bohème they can work as a real fire alarm. Attention, please, 2.0: a new format, a new look, a new version. To the great relief of all alarmed opera fans, this new Budapest production is 2.0 at its best: creative, fast and interactive. Moreover, it is still La bohème and is supremely well sung and acted.

<i>La bohème 2.0</i> © Attila Nagy
La bohème 2.0
© Attila Nagy

To make Puccini’s story from 19th-century Paris artistic life more up to date, Italian director Damiano Michieletto moved it to Christmas Eve in Paris 2016. In case of doubt, the public could always consult a fold-out map of Paris with the emergency numbers, placed by the street workers on stage between the acts. Christmas Eve means busy streets full of shoppers, overloaded trolleys and exciting children, who are hoping for the best presents ever. Santa Claus is a top attraction, with a marching band and a group of hilarious red-nosed reindeer which move gracefully under Puccini’s music. Everybody expects a miracle, or at least a present. Rodolfo, a bespectacled poet, is the luckiest one as he meets Mimì. His friends are happy for him and celebrate Christmas Eve enthusiastically at the expense of Alcindoro and let poor Musetta’s admirer care for the shopping bags from Gucci and other expensive fashion stores.

The first two acts at Hungarian State Opera's Erkel Theatre are lived as a great party, in spite of misfortunes and hardships. The stage designer Paolo Fantin creates a world full of striking contrasts. Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard have no more than their mattresses and sleeping bags, but are happy to share a meal of potato chips and to drink wine from paper cups. Thanks to the costume designer Carla Teti, all the characters look just like the guys next door. Mimì is perhaps the most ‘2.0’ with her arm and neck tattooed.

Orsolya Sáfár (Mimì) © Attila Nagy
Orsolya Sáfár (Mimì)
© Attila Nagy

These alternative bohemians would not stand out in the streets of Budapest or Paris today and can assimilate organically in any modern streetscape. The vocal performance of the whole cast was excellent and above expectations. I have only superlatives for Orsolya Sáfár, a fragile, slender, insecure and broken Mimì. This Hungarian soprano is blessed with not only a superb voice, but also an outstanding dramatic talent. The excellent tenor Gergely Boncsér makes his Rodolfo a sensitive poet. Audience acclamations for Zsolt Haja's reserved but compassionate Marcello were justified, as they were for Zoltán Nagy as a sociable saxophonist Schaunard and for András Kiss as jolly philosopher Colline, who impressed with his warm deep bass. The temperamental redhead Musetta is sung by Ildikó Szakács. Even Benoît (Gábor Gárday) and Alcindor (Lajos Geiger), who stay on stage just for a couple of minutes, are dramatically and vocally convincing.

Experienced conductor János Kovács succeeded in keeping all the musical and scenic action together, leading this busy and crowded performance to its final denouement. The first acts were perhaps slightly overloaded with a lot of modern details (some of them very funny). All these visual elements asked for a lot of concentration from the public who had also not to forget to follow the musical kaleidoscope of Puccini.

<i>La bohème 2.0</i> © Attila Nagy
La bohème 2.0
© Attila Nagy

The last two acts were strikingly different, more sober. The cold winter, rubbish in the streets, homeless men, broken roads and the friends' bare room where Mimì comes to die were merciless as the last pages of this story unfolded. The whole scene of dying Mimì, together with a Rodolfo’s desperate cry, was strongly emotional. One of the most moving moments was provided by Musetta, lighting a tea-light. This lonely feeble candle was a light reminder of all the previous fire, enkindled live on stage, to warm the room with a stove and a heater or to light all those countless cigarettes which were continously smoked by the bohemians. Smoke, fire, flames and burning smell – and as a contrast - the very last, simple and poor candle for a dying Mimì.

This just recently premiered production had a noteworthy amount of young visitors. La bohème 2.0 has evidently found its public and came close to the aim of the director: “to explore the lives of young intellectuals trying to find their place in today’s world”. These young bohemians gave Puccini’s opera the refreshing radiance of youth, without disappointing or discouraging the more experienced opera fans.