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REVIEW: Houston, Bohème in Space Has a Problem (Opéra de Paris)

A scene from the new production of La Bohème at the Paris Opera. Photo by Geert Goiris.

Words cannot describe my feelings at getting assigned to review La Bohème at the Paris Opera. My gateway to opera was Musetta’s waltz in Rent, played on a thrilling electric guitar. Then came Youtube, friends’ recitals, and a music appreciation class, until the fond day that I saw Minnesota Opera perform this Puccini classic. I thoroughly enjoyed that production, but I was over the moon at seeing this opera set in Paris in Paris. I had no idea how literal that over the moon part would be.

First things first. The new Bohème directed by Claus Guth is visually gorgeous, beautiful to hear, and bizarre to the point that it’s incomprehensible. If anyone ever writes Armageddon: The Opera or Star Trek: The Opera, Guth clearly has the talent to bring it to fruition – but watching his Bohème finally taught me what that “rolling in his grave” feeling feels like.

A scene from the Paris Opera production of La Bohème. Photo by Bernd Uhlig.

It’s not that I’m a purist with the classics. Shakespeare in the Bronx is perfectly fine with me, provided that it’s done earnestly and not by half, and I’ve seen all sorts of irreverent (and sometimes drunk) stagings of normally serious plays. I could even see how setting La Bohème in space could be brilliant. The problem is that Guth has essentially rewritten the main narrative as a set of fevered hallucinations. This doesn’t just feel disrespectful – it just doesn’t gel into a working artistic product.

Let’s back up. Guth’s vision is gorgeous, both for the spaceship interiors and moonscape. In terms of look and sound, it would be hard to argue that it isn’t distinctive and striking. Atalla Ayan’s Rodolfo is superb (although a little soft from my seat) and Aida Garifullina sings Musetta with a turn of phrase that can only be called lustrous and sexy. Gustavo Dudamel’s command of the orchestra is sumptuous. In isolation, these are fine, but the product does not work in when you add it up.

The problem starts with Mimi. No, not Sonya Yoncheva’s performance – the whole idea of Mimi as an apparition, plus everything involved with taking the story out of real time. The famous landlord scene turns into a cruel bout of playing with a corpse, several characters end up committing suicide (!), and then there’s the whole problem of having characters who are clearly supposed to be in the vacuum of space while Mimi walks around sans suit. These contrivances are distracting and break the suspension of disbelief. More to the point, it’s just visually absurd.

There probably is a great Bohème waiting to be set in space. You could do a lot with the characters being cooped up, out of resources, literally short on air. You could even do a revisionist take of sorts. What is playing at the Paris opera is neither – it appears to be the result of Guth wanting to direct his own scifi thriller and using the Bastille stage to do so. The result is a Bohème that is visually and aurally beautiful, but so dramatically empty and discordant that it leaves one irritated.

An apparition of Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva) from the Paris Opera production of La Bohème. Photo by Bernd Uhlig.

La Bohème plays through December 31 at the Paris Opera’s Opéra-Bastille stage.

Amy Donahue