- Stefan Herheim’s La bohème on DVD: A Review PortfolioIntroduction
In the past ten years, the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim has emerged as one of the most distinctive forces in the European operatic avant-garde. His approach is often casually labeled “deconstructive,” and although his obsessive attention to minor or unconscious details in his source texts, as well as his proclivity for riots of allusive incoherence, may recall classical deconstruction at its most exhilarating, his concern with place and history—no other director so consistently foregrounds the conditions of a given work’s production and reception—suggest an affinity with more conventionally musicological concerns, while also gesturing toward the site-specificity of much contemporary art. Reviewing a typically elaborate Salome for the Salzburg Easter Festival—doubled characters, Hamlet references, a pageant of historical dictators—Micaela Baranello described “a constant pull between the visceral spectacle and flash of the stage images on one hand and the intellectual challenges of the puzzle-like storytelling and (Brechtian) estrangement effects on the other.”1 This balance of pleasures both drastic and gnostic may help account for the fact that, in addition to endearing himself to academic critics, Herheim has also increasingly found favor with a wider public. Far from the succès de scandale that some predicted, a recent production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was judged “irresistible” by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times; plans are under way to bring it to the Metropolitan Opera, hardly a neo-Brechtian hothouse.2
Herheim has fared less well in the medium of DVD. His most discussed production, a 2008 Parsifal for Bayreuth, remains stuck in the shaky netherworld of YouTube, and to date only three films have been commercially released: a 2006 version of his breakthrough production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (created for the Salzburg Festival in 2003 and significantly revised for its later outing as part of the festival’s celebration of Mozart’s bicentennial);3 a 2012 staging of Eugene Onegin for the Netherlands Opera; and a 2012 production of La bohème for the Norwegian National Opera, the subject of this current dossier. Many of the responses that follow reflect on the mechanisms of canonization and mediation that inform this DVD, but why single out Herheim’s Bohème for such attention? On one hand, it seems the document that best encapsulates the director’s larger aesthetic. (Especially characteristic is the use he makes of sets and costumes from [End Page 146] Oslo’s repertory production of Puccini’s opera, as well as the invented, present-day narrative he layers onto it.) On the other, La bohème also represents something of a departure for him: Herheim, like many practitioners of Regietheater, has tended to associate himself with a primarily Austro-German canon, as the prominence of Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss in the preceding discussion should already make clear. In such a context, the turn to Puccini, and to an opera that has inspired virtually no innovative interpretations in the century since its premiere, is noteworthy in itself. Furthermore, Herheim’s typically ambivalent response to La bohème—an estranged account of a culinary favorite; an intellectual puzzle that is also intensely moving; a DVD that imperfectly captures a live production which, in itself, was already haunted by images of the televisual—seems to offer a self-reflexive summa of many of the tensions that have animated its director’s career so far.
Arman Schwartz is a Fellow in the Department of Music at the University of Birmingham; he previously held postdoctoral fellowships at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the recipient of a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, the Premio “Rotary” Giacomo Puccini, and the Royal Musical Association's Jerome Roche Prize.
1. Micaela K. Baranello, “Richard Strauss: Salome” (review), Opera Quarterly 27 (2011): 336.
2. See Anthony Tommasini, “Fresh Memo from a Desk Full of Song: Reimagining Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’ at Salzburg Festival,” New York Times, August 6, 2013, C1.
3. For a discussion of these versions, as well as primary sources relating to their conception, see Wolfgang Willaschek, “Enduring Echo...