The basic repertoire of each theatre includes the blockbusters Aida, La bohème, Carmen - the ABC of opera, so to speak. At the Komische Oper Berlin it is almost a tradition that the Intendant, especially if also a sought-after stage director, stages a new production for his house. After all, the last Bohème, staged by the erstwhile Intendant Harry Kupfer, was played 357 times from 1982 to 2006. Now Barrie Kosky has ventured down the same path and has brought out a new version of this popular Verismo opera.

Nadja Mchantaf (Mimì), Günter Papendell (Marcello) and Vera-Lotte Böcker (Musetta) © Iko Freese |
Nadja Mchantaf (Mimì), Günter Papendell (Marcello) and Vera-Lotte Böcker (Musetta)
© Iko Freese |

Based on the Scènes de la vie de Bohème written by Henri Murger in 1851, Kosky places the staging of Puccini's work at the end of the 19th century (it was premiered in 1896). In a short period starting at Christmas, the story tells a chapter in the life of six young people, in a time when they confront death up close, most likely for the first time in their lives, bringing them face to face with their own mortality. Kosky relates the story without sentimentality or deep insight into the emotional life of the young protagonists – superficial almost. The era is a time of breaking up of old structures, when industrialisation takes hold and new processes are implemented, with its promises of adventure and novelty. Marcello has embraced one of these emerging technologies: the embedding of images onto glass plates with the use of chemicals, creating a daguerreotype.

The early daguerreotypes also inspire the stage design of Rufus Didwiszus, with images of faded portraits and empty street scenes. Thus, the director's concept is given a framework for the inevitable dissolution of the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì. A small raised area on the open stage represents the attic shared by the four young men. The daily routine of financial hardship is swept away in the Café Momus scene. After all, it's Christmas and the neighbourhood has turned out to celebrate. Where to look first? Kosky loves to stage over-the-top scenes: Parpignol the toy seller is himself a horned clown, the children are black-clad Pierrots and burlesque dancers, scantily clad hookers of both sexes with corsets and feather boas, nuns and housewives all swirl by on the revolving stage. Costume designer Victoria Behr has taken inspiration from the designer of the first Bohème production, Adolfo Hohenstein: check patterns everywhere, one more ghastly than the next. Only Musetta gets “pretty” costumes.

The young men form a very agile and carefree quartet, jumping and rolling around like puppies. They even incorporate the role of the landlord Benôit – here “he” is only a hat, which eventually disappears down the constantly loudly popping hatch. Why this role, usually sung by an older, esteemed member of the ensemble, has been omitted, remains a mystery. The group of six young people embodies the youth that lives in the here and now – as Rodolfo confirms at the beginning: “E come vivo? Vivo!”

Gérard Schneider (Rodolfo) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mimì) © Iko Freese |
Gérard Schneider (Rodolfo) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mimì)
© Iko Freese |

Nadja Mchantaf makes her debut as Mimì, her warm soprano reflecting the self-confidence of a young woman who wants to live life on her own terms but fails in the end. Tenor Gerard Schneider is a sleek Rodolfo, a bit self-absorbed and unfortunately vocally not up to par for this demanding role, with intonation problems and a hard timbre. The roles of Schaunard by Dániel Foki and Colline by Philipp Meierhöfer are deftly interpreted, without making a lasting impression. Outstanding, however, the Marcello of Günter Papendell, showing humanity with his warm baritone and understanding of the role. Vera-Lotte Böcker plays and sings her Musetta for what it’s worth with bitchy coloraturas.

The orchestra rushes along briskly under the direction of Jordan de Souza. But where is the melodiousness, the emotions that Puccini writes about? There is a hard Verismo-beat here, which suits the goings-on on stage. The famous last scene, with Rodolfo's heart-rending "Mimì" often wrenches a tear even from hardcore opera lovers. Not so here. All involved have turned away, seeking their next adventure, unable to confront death. Mimì dies alone, sitting upright on a chair – in the background, the spotlight fades on a vintage photo-portrait, as Mimì breathes her last.