The stage set for Act 1 of Puccini’s La Bohème in the courtyard of Weikersheim Palace was dominated by a book with the German title Engel laufen nackt (Angels run naked). This, we learned, was the quite successful first novel by a young author named Rodolfo Martinelli, who in this production of La Bohème was not starving in a garret in the 1830s, but living a comfortable life in a 21st century metropolis that might have been Paris, but could also have been London, Berlin, Barcelona, Tokyo or New York.
This Gewehrhaus at one corner of the Weikersheim Palace Garden was where the dramaturge Farina Grieb gave her introductory talk 45 minutes before show time. She explained that Rodolfo, in this production, had just published his first novel and was working on his second. He and his friends Marcello (the painter), Colline (the philosopher) and Schaunard (the musician) were all active participants in the thriving artistic life of the big city.
She said the story of the opera revolved around three couples, two of which were familiar to anyone who had ever seen La Bohème before: Rodolfo + Mimi (love at first sight, a painful separation and a reconciliation just before Mimi’s early death) and Marcello + Musetta (a stormy on-again, off-again relationship).
And the third couple? Colline + Schaunard, who in this production live in a harmonious homosexual marriage. (Puccini would no doubt have been astounded, if not enraged, by this interpretation, but this is the 21st century, after all, and there is no mention in the libretto of either of them having a girlfriend.) The dramaturge suggested that Mimi envied the two men and wished she could have had such a harmonious relationship with Rodolfo.
I must admit I was skeptical after hearing the introductory talk, and doubtful that La Bohème was going to survive being transplanted into the 21st century. But I was pleasantly surprised when the production, by stage director Patrick Bialdyga, turned out to be not only funny but also highly intelligent, well-rehearsed and studded with convincing details.
The orchestra tuned up as usual (it was the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia this time), but before they started playing Puccini’s score there was some recorded music that I didn’t recognize — not opera music — to accompany a funny pantomime scene in which Marcello, the painter, gave a large bouquet of red roses to his girlfriend Musetta. She gladly accepted them, but when he got down on his knees and offered her a wedding ring she rejected it furiously and started flailing him with the roses, leaving the bed and the floor covered with rose petals that would later be used in other scenes. She gave him the finger as she stormed out, and then the orchestra started playing Puccini’s music.
After this unconventional opening the opera proceeded as usual until the appearance of the landlord, Benoît, who in this production was not a senile dotard who had come to collect the rent, but a hyperactive youngish real estate developer who wanted to evict Marcello from his atelier so he could convert it into a luxurious apartment. Benoît had two assistants with him, gorgeous young women who were dressed like fashion models but carried carpenter’s rules and immediately began measuring the room and planning its conversion.
Benoît later got his comeuppance in act 2, when he tried to impress everyone but was shunned by the hip young people at the fashionable Club Momus. (There was no 1830 Christmas Eve in Paris this time.)
After the intermission Rodolfo’s novel still dominated the stage, but now the book had been opened to display two pages of clearly legible text in German. The text had to do with young hip city-dwellers in the 21st century all talking past each other, and the stage was set up with several rows of folding chairs for the audience at a reading by the celebrated young author.
As the opera audience returned to their seats on the bleachers, chorus members came in, greeted each other profusely and took their places on the stage as the audience for Rodolfo’s reading. This was carefully staged to look humorous and realistic, and was a far cry from the usual setting for act 3 at a toll station on the outskirts of Paris on a winter morning.
Since the singer of Rodolfo was from Peru and didn’t speak much German, his reading took the form of a recording by a native German speaker, who read not only the two pages of text on display on the stage, but also two or three more pages as Rodolfo lip-synced. The people in the stage audience were demonstrably delighted by the text, all except Mimi, who was sitting in the last row and became more and more distressed as the reading went on. Presumably the text included things Mimi had said to Rodolfo during lovers’ quarrels, and she felt exposed and betrayed.
After the reading, act 3 of the opera began, sung in Italian even though the text of Rodolfo’s novel was in German. People from the stage audience kept coming up to have the young author autograph copies of his book, and of course they took selfies of themselves with the author.
When Mimi died at the end of act 4, she did it in a way that I have seen before (notably at the end of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Copenhagen), so it wasn’t original but was still effective. She simply took off her coat, laid it down on the bed and stepped aside, as though to show that death meant simply shedding her outer shell but leaving her inner self intact.
Then her inner self went to the back of the stage and closed the book, so only the back cover was visible.
The singers taking their bows in this photo are (from left to right) Einar Jónsson from Iceland as Parpignol (he did a pole dance at Club Momus in the second act), Florian Marignol from France as Schaunard, Dionysos Idis from Germany as Colline, Antonio Fernandez Brixis from Peru as Rodolfo, Daniela Yurrita from Guatemala as Mimi, Richard Eunwon Park from South Korea as Marcello and Mengqi Zhang from China as Musetta.
This time they had three singers for the role of Mimi and two for each of the other main roles, so none of them had to sing two nights in a row. Some of the singers who were not performing the night I was there were from Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Chile and Colombia, so the cast was very international as always.
Since the open-air operas in Weikersheim are only performed in the odd-numbered years, there won’t be one in 2020, but for 2021 they have already announced that their opera will be Carmen by Georges Bizet — but presumably in a new production, not the same one I saw here in 2003.
Now you can see the trailer for La Bohème in Weikersheim.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.