Yuval Sharon's new 'backwards' La bohème which premiered at Opera Philadelphia on 28 April 2023 isn't exactly German Regietheater a l'americain. Befitting America this 'supersized' production can't escape excess in its remake. Traditionanally, German theater by the director proceeds along two paths, either an inventive neuinszierung which entirely reimagines setting place and time, or neustudierung which calls for a retreat back to the bare bones, to look on an old work again as if for the first time.
Yuval's does neither of these but rather completely reverses the order of the action so that we start with tragedy and end with promise while compressing a usually 3.5 hour four act work into just around a hundred minutes. As a literally death defying act of post-modern bricolage and cool objectivity, the scheme does work, melodrama is cut through and an alternative is offered to the tragic sentimentality of the grand finale.
In its pursuit of circularity one might even see some of the wisdom of the karmic East infused in this distinctly European work of the Belle Epoque. However the pure visual and spectator experience is confounding if not undermined. Lost almost entirely with the back to front concept is the feel of immersion in a distinct milieu - Bohème after all is one of the first great 'sub-culture' operas, shocking at the time for its verismo depiction of the Bohemian underworld. It is unfortunate especially in these days to lose sight of an iconic art depiction of shared struggle and solidarity within a maltreated community.
Conceptually this staging ends up being even more about the link of memory to love and the scarred destiny of star crossed lovers, isolated from context and history. While some of the milieu scenes featuring a mass of people are retained in the middle, the aesthetics of set and costume are bewildering - did Yuval mean to evoke Amish summer stock?
The visual as a whole came across as bare and an incomplete afterthought, with no discernable legible reference points. The plaques held up by children presumably meant to suggest housing looked like creepy Edward Gorey illustrations.
Immature especially was the continued presence of an on-stage narrator, à la Peter and the Wolf, pairing hand holding with the dose of the avant garde. Tenor Joshua Blue's Rodolfo and soprano Kara Goodrich's Mimì shone through, preserving the vitality of Puccini's original.
However one evaluates the success of this venture, Opera Philadelphia also preserves its place as the premiere stop for all that is new and daring in opera in the US.
Copyright © 10 May 2023
Adam J Sacks,
Hong Kong, China