Opera Philadelphia

Director's Note: La bohème

By Yuval Sharon

“How do you begin telling the story of a great love when you know it ended in disaster?”

Sandro Veronesi’s line from his book Il colibrì (The Hummingbird) accompanies a story that hops back and forth in time, narrating a tender romance that ended in heartbreak.

Veronesi’s goal is to “demolish the tyranny of chronology” and to place more emphasis on how things happen, rather than what happens. Along the way, the reader is confronted with the unruly and indirect nature of memory, and she may come to understand what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard summarized so perfectly: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Veronesi’s recent novel is a fitting point of departure for this production of La bohème, which begins at the end and works in reverse order, back to the first moment Mimì and Rodolfo met. The kind of narrative experiment undertaken in Veronesi’s novel seems hard to imagine in an art form like opera, where the “tyranny of chronology” seems fixed in the rigid architecture of the music. Most operas would not sustain this kind of approach, with arrow-like stories that move in only one direction.

But Bohème tells its story in a highly unconventional manner: Puccini described the work as a piece in quattro quadri, or “four pictures.” Henri Murger’s original work, Scenes from the Bohemian Life, was published in serial form from 1845 to 1848, resulting in an episodic, impressionistic snapshot of a revolutionary underbelly of society. Atmosphere and color are more important than the narrative arcs we find in great novels of the time, and the resulting work resembles the nascent art of photography more than classic literature. If Murger’s writing was photographic, Puccini’s opera—written as the “moving image” was born—is powerfully cinematic. Simultaneous action, interspersed scenes, overlapping events—all of this creates a new and very modern sense of time that is barely contained by the musical meter. There are few, if any, moments in opera that capture falling in love—with its anarchic rush of impressions and the psychedelic dissolution of time—as effectively as Act II. Bohème may be the most popular opera in the repertoire, but its radical qualities are paradoxically undervalued. (Is the opera too popular to claim it for the avant-garde?)


One of the remarkable discoveries we’ve made in preparing this production is how lightning-fast the entire opera plays out. Performed without intermission and with one discrete cut in the first act, Bohème clocks in at just over 90 minutes. This comes as a shock to most opera patrons, who think of Bohème as nearly three-hour affairs. Cumbersome scene changes — taking the notion of “four pictures” literally — usually necessitate at least one, if not two, intermissions. The pressure to “over-do” Bohème also creates uneasy contradictions: the starving artists describe their garret as “squalid”, “drafty,” and “cramped,” but most productions have them living in what looks like the most enviable penthouse in Paris. I wanted to create a production that emphasized the swiftness of the music and the brevity of these lives; all the myriad details that make up a typical Bohème — the stereotypes and clichés, as well as the pictorial expectations — have been sifted away in search of the work’s true gold. We are after the essence of this work, which I think of as the perfectly preserved energy of being young, full of hope, and in love with life.

There are big questions invoked when we perform a classic like La bohème in a non-traditional way, such as: how and why do we perform masterpieces in the here and now? What is to be gained by disrupting conventional listening? Is it possible to treat operatic masterpieces with the same interpretive flexibility that, say, Shakespeare’s plays demand? While those provocations offer a background to the work we’ve done with this opera, they are also, fittingly, not our endgame, but our point of departure. Likewise, I hope it offers you a point of departure to listen and experience the opera as if it is a world premiere.

More importantly, I hope it invites you to explore a personal meditation on life and love. To return to Veronesi: how do you tell your great love story? Do you start from the beginning, or do you chart a meandering path? Disaster, death, and loss will inevitably befall even the happiest lives and loves—but is that really the end of the story?


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