Mimi, Rodolfo, the Spacemen and the Mime

Formerly known as La Bohème.

Unusual, provocative, a new approach, absolutely, but how it relates to the music and libretto I cannot tell you. It seemed like the management had double-booked the theatre. There were two unrelated productions on the stage simultaneously. On stage-right you have Mimi and Rodolfo declaring their love, falling out, and reuniting before the inevitable tragic end, while on stage-left mute spacemen wander around a white moonscape of an unnamed planet. Except when they’re inside the doomed spaceship and the spacemen are floating outside the window. They never seem to merge until the end when instead of a quiet death, Mimi walks through an annoying,  shimmering silver curtain and wanders off the planet.

I get it. I think. In a world without hope, only love and art make sense. Or something like that. But all this spaceship nonsense was totally unnecessary and impossible to reconcile with the action. So the production team led by Claus Guth stopped trying and just let the spacemen hang around while the lovers played out their fate.

I can imagine the early meetings when Mr. Guth presented his concept:

“To make this romantic trifle relevant to today, we must move ahead in time to make the demise of our civilization real. Exaggerate, exaggerate, it’s the only way. Their love can only be meaningful to us if it takes place in a world where love is impossible. Their art can only touch us if it exists beyond the end of the world.”

“Brilliant, Claus. Make it happen. Make this music speak to us again.”

Then they get into production and the questions begin: “Excuse me Claus, but if we open on a spaceship, how do we bring in Mimi?”

“No problem. Stop thinking literally. We do not need to hold the hand of the audience. We’ll just bring her in as if she was in another room. It’s a big ship.”

“They were on the same ship but had never met?

“As I said, it’s a big ship.”

“Excuse me, sir, but is it big enough to hold the Café Momus?”

“Hmm. Yes. I see what you mean. Think, people! Outside the box.”

“I’ve got it, sir. It’s a dream. Rodolfo takes a little nap and dreams the left bank of Paris, which, of course, doesn’t exist anymore. That world is dead.”

“Brilliant. That’s what I mean, people, outside the box. Now, let me tell you something else I hate about opera. The house is huge, the singers are small, the world is dying. The audience has to see the emotions to feel them but they’re so far away and they’re checking their phones or reading those damn titles. How do we grab them?”

“I’ve got it sir: video. We bring a camera on stage- it will look like all the other tech spacey garbage already on stage – and we project a huge close-up of the singer on the wall behind him.”

“Good, I like it. But remember, exaggerate! We’re talking really close. I want to see his tonsils.”

“I’m not sure the Rodolfo still has tonsils, sir.”

“Nobody likes a smart-ass, junior. OK, video, I like it but it’s not enough and we can’t do it for everyone. How about a mime?”

“Everybody hates mimes, sir. Those guys on the Pont des Arts can’t even make a living anymore.”

“Good. They’ll work cheap.”

“But no one likes them, sir.”

“Exactly why I want them. This audience needs a good slap in the face.”

“The critics will hate it. The audience will boo when you take your bow, maybe even during the performance.”

“Perfect. Better to give them something to hate than something they’ll forget. What time is my train to Berlin?”

A final word: not even this kind of nonsense can kill this music:

Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel with Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, it really was possible to close your eyes and listen to Puccini.

This is a photograph from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of La Boheme in San Francisco in 1978. At the time, it was considered to be provocative, the work of a willful director imposing an inappropriate vision on a classic. But it was beautiful, affecting, illuminating and it has stayed with me all these years.

La Bohème, San Francisco Opera, 1978

Settling In

It’s getting dangerously close to real life around here. I found a new doctor, joined a gym, shopped for groceries, and went to the movies in my neighborhood.

But this is Paris and I came here to make sure my life was more than shopping, cooking, eating, and sleeping.  So I stopped by a favorite wine bar last week, did I mention drinking? I ordered a glass of Brouilly and the bartender replied: “Non, non, monsieur, aujourd’hui c’est le Beaujolais Nouveau. Of course it was. All over Paris were signs proclaiming the arrival of this year’s vintage and I was lunching at ground zero. Tasted pretty good, too. More a testament to the context than the wine, but still.

I jumped into the cultural life of the city when Tia and John, the lovely propriétaires of my building invited me to Paris Photo last week. This is a gigantic marketplace: galleries from around the world displaying and selling contemporary and historical photography create a comprehensive survey of the history of the medium. Two hours was as much as my brain could absorb, but just being there made me feel part of the city.

Square Saint Lambert

Then I got carried away and booked tickets for a futuristic La Boheme at Bastille. I’m not sure what to expect—the only image I’ve seen looks like a spaceship has crashed in a snowy forest— but Dudamel is conducting and I can always close my eyes, listen to the music, get off the spaceship and return to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This all followed a propitious return to the city. I rented a van to haul my stuff and what Jess had stored in our house and as I approached the city, a rainbow appeared. No kidding. A rainbow. I’m not making this up and it gets better. We unloaded at her house, drove across Paris to my apartment where I found a parking place in front of my house just as the clutch gave out. Couldn’t drive another meter. When I finally reached the rental company they told me not to worry, those Renault vans are famous for faulty clutches, and they’ll send a tow truck.

So I’m getting there. The bureaucratic details are being ticked off my list, I have a comfortable work space in my little house, central heating, a good baguette only a block away, and all of Paris within minutes on the Métro. I’m home.

Square Saint Lambert

©2017 Ron Scherl