- Stefan Herheim’s La bohème on DVD: A Review PortfolioOpera as Escapism
It’s not surprising that a journal devoted to the performance, history, and theory of opera should single out Stefan Herheim’s Oslo La bohème. Made available to a global audience thanks to its recent release on DVD, this is a production that reconsiders not only the opera’s plot but its reception and indeed the very theory and practice of staging works from the operatic canon. Besides relaying the opera’s well-known romantic plot and voicing in a sincere and complex way every Rodolfo’s fear of losing his beloved Lucia/Mimì to death, this La bohème is also a staged reflection on opera as a medium. As it turns out, though, this question of mediality will be further problematized, and in seemingly unintended ways, by its presentation on DVD.
The performance begins in almost unbearable silence, interrupted only by an electrocardiogram’s rhythmic bleep. A sickbed appears, seemingly glowing from within. Then, slowly, the room around it lightens: a man in a brown corduroy suit, apparently a relative, sits at the foot of the bed of a severely ill woman attached to an artificial respirator. The realistic scene evokes the atmosphere of a cold hospital room in which someone is dying. Typical props meant to “pretty up” add to the bleakness: a framed poster canvassing nightly escapes to Paris, a lonely rose in an ugly hospital vase, an evergreen wreath tied with a red ribbon on the door. Lack of hair spells out the cause of death: cancer.
Only the EKG marker—theatrically projected to dart in bright green where wall and roof meet—indicates that we are on a stage, not in a real hospital. The young man distinctly senses someone watching him as he takes his beloved’s little hand to warm it. He slowly raises his head and stares into the dark before him. There are two doctors on the other side of the monitoring pane behind him; they are not looking, though, but conversing intently about a newspaper article in front of them. A janitor and an attractive female nurse complete the generic picture. With a few carefully chosen gestures, Herheim manages to outline a concrete situation and the key relationships between what will emerge as the main characters: the janitor is enamored by the coquettish nurse, who also flirts with the more distinguished-looking of the doctors. Fiercely, the janitor separates them with his mop. Otherwise, the occasional professional/anxious glances to the hospital room govern the scene. The young man in the corduroy suit sits there, alone with death, and waits—just as the hospital staff does, just as we the viewers do. And the young man isn’t mistaken: he is indeed being observed from up front, by us. [End Page 148]
My “us” gives me away. There is no “us”: I’m alone in front of my television set. And therein lies my personal dilemma. I’d like to tell readers who have never seen any of his productions live about Herheim’s stage thumbprint. To do so, I would want to describe the story of the young man’s flight from the hospital (where his wife dies) to La bohème’s operatic Paris and all that this entails. I’d emphasize how, thanks to the young man’s gaze out (or in) to the audience and many other gazes in this mise-en-scène, the meeting of artwork and viewer in operatic performance is continually mirrored in fragments while the story unfolds. For the first time, however, I’m not watching a Herheim performance in the auditorium but on DVD, and I must confess that the dramaturgy of gazes I’ve come to expect in his work fails to register for me here in the way that it has in live performance. This review, then, is inevitably also about the extent to which Herheim’s narrative (developed for the interaction between stage and auditorium) can be conveyed on DVD. Yet the background for this comparison is not a live performance of the production; it is my (re...