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  • Stefan Herheim’s La bohème on DVD: A Review PortfolioThe Eye of a Poet
  • Arman Schwartz

The first sounds we hear in Stefan Herheim’s production of La bohème—created for the Norwegian National Opera in 2012, and filmed subtly for DVD by Stein-Roger Bull—are the pulses of an electrocardiograph. Its green waves are projected onto a false proscenium and also visible on an onstage monitor, one located more properly within the space of diegesis. The lights brighten to reveal a hospital room where a young man, stuffed rather optimistically into a brown corduroy suit, is watching his wife, bald and sick with cancer. Behind him a large window opens onto another room, through which the clinic’s functionaries (cold doctor, sympathetic janitor, sexy nurse) can be glimpsed reading newspapers and chatting, but also observing one another. (My point is not just that spectatorship is being elaborately fractured in this scene, but that the characters themselves seem to emerge from the screens of daytime television, evoking ever-receding modes of looking. And what, after all, is an EKG monitor, if not one more technique for peering inward?) The pulse slows, an alarm sounds, the functionaries rush onstage, and finally the orchestra begins to play, each downbeat of Puccini’s prelude coordinated with a stab of the nurse’s fists into the heart of the dead patient.

With this framing device in place, the terms of Herheim’s concept come quickly into focus, and each line of Puccini’s libretto takes on a morbid double meaning. “This Red Sea soaks and freezes me,” the janitor begins, attempting to distract the husband with a joke about mopping floors.1 “In the gray skies I watch Paris smoke from its thousand chimneys,” he responds, dementedly his mind already lost to grief. (His delusion appears to be inspired by a poster of Notre-Dame on the wall behind him.) Before long, the husband (should we already call him Rodolfo?) has grabbed his wife’s case file and set it aflame with his lighter. Now the stage dims and, as curiously theatrical flames are projected onto the false proscenium, the hospital walls open to reveal the first-act set of the Norwegian National Opera’s repertory production of La bohème. The other characters undress (elements of nineteenth-century costume lurk beneath their white robes) and, from this point on, they will act as characters (sometimes willing, sometimes horrified) in Rodolfo’s pageant: an increasingly grotesque attempt to come to terms with his experience of love and loss by imagining it through the narrative lens of Puccini’s opera. [End Page 162]

The site-specific dialogue with an established staging tradition, the line-by-line reworking of a source text, and the reflexive interrogation of the status of a canonical artwork in the present will all be familiar to followers of Herheim’s work. Perhaps the best comparison is with the director’s 2008 staging of Parsifal at Bayreuth, where the opera was remade into a history (and staged exorcism) of the festival itself.2 (Not coincidentally, Herheim’s Parsifal also begins with a woman dying and a man who distracts his gaze with art. In this case, it is a small child who flees from his mother’s deathbed and builds a little castle for his dolls.) But whereas Parsifal’s unique status at the Bayreuth Festival might reasonably be described as a constitutive wound in need of ritual cleansing, it would be difficult to make any similar claims about the Norwegian National Opera’s relationship with La bohème. Indeed, what is most striking about Rodolfo’s fantasy is its utter interchangeability with every other traditional staging of Puccini’s opera; Herheim’s concept might easily be enacted upon Zeffirelli’s graying warhorse at the Met. As such, the framing device might be described as a way of maintaining Puccini’s text, but only under conditions of erasure: a clever strategy when dealing with a composer whose operas often seem—unlike those of, say, Mozart or Verdi— ineradicably, embarrassingly dependent on their original mise-en-scène.3 But if this is true—if Herheim wants us to...


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pp. 162-167
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