Not just another night at the opera: La Boheme is back in Seattle

La Boheme director Tomer Zvulun Credit: Alan Alabastro

There will always be cynics who roll their eyes at mention of “La Bohème.” But for the rest of us who are defenseless against its attractions, the only thing that can make Giacomo Puccini’s turn-of-the-century opera about young love and loss grow tiresome is a lack of conviction. Even mediocre performances don’t seem to dampen the “La Bohème” effect. Yet any hint of auto-pilot, of relying on routine, tends to break the spell.

Stage Director Tomer Zvulun and Maestro Carlo Montanaro discuss “La Bohème”

That seems highly unlikely when you listen to Tomer Zvulun describe his vision of this perennially popular opera. The young Israeli stage director is flush with enthusiasm for Puccini’s genius as he comes out of rehearsal for Seattle Opera’s new production, which opens this weekend. Zvulun made his lead directorial debut at Seattle Opera with a production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” in 2010 that gave genuine dimension to Donizetti’s ill-fated characters.

“‘La Bohème’ speaks to everybody," says Zvulun. "It’s an opera for people in love, or for those who still remember what it is to be young and in love, for people who are pursuing their dreams, and for everyone who has ever had their heart broken.” 

Puccini’s ability to render all this in emotionally gripping music has given “La Bohème” its reputation as a “gateway drug” into the addictive art form that is opera. Zvulun himself recalls seeing a production at Israeli Opera. He was torn at the time between a career in medicine and one in theater. "La Boheme" decided him. “It was one of those ‘it’ moments when you feel elated and in contact with something bigger than you, so that suddenly everything is clear.”

Now a director who is increasingly in demand, Zvulun feels no need to “modernize” Puccini’s opera as a way to emphasize its relevance. Present-day audiences naturally make their own connections with “La Bohème”’s struggling artists and their dreams. No spoon-feeding required. The music Puccini wrote to breathe life into his characters makes the connection.

The unique power of his score is accentuated by comparison with one of Puccini’s rivals, Ruggero Leoncavallo (composer of another operatic perennial, “Pagliacci”). Working at the same time, Leoncavallo wrote an opera based on the same source – the Parisian writer Henri Murger’s “Scènes de la vie de bohème.” But hisLa Bohème,” which premiered only a year after Puccini’s, is now just a footnote.

Speight's Corner: Meet the Bohemians

But the unwavering popularity of Puccini’s portrayal of these young Bohemians does carry a potential disadvantage: How to make it fresh without distorting the opera itself?

“It would be very easy to update this production to Seattle’s University District in 2013 and have Rodolfo and Mimì exchange tweets or Facebook updates,” notes Zvulun. “But for me it’s obvious that what Puccini has created is timeless and that the setting can be transposed from one era to another.”

In fact, the urge to interpolate an “original” take on “La Bohème” (last seen here in 2007) can backfire all too easily, the director cautions, turning into a staging full of distracting gimmicks. But that hardly means there’s nothing new to discover to enhance the audience’s experience of something so familiar. Even within the essentially traditional framework of Seattle Opera’s production, Zvulun and his colleagues have developed a “visual manifestation” for the story that filters the opera through a new lens. Quite literally: a key inspiration was the shift in the perception of memory that was spurred at the time by the emergence of photography and early cinema.

While both Murger and Puccini’s librettists set the action in Paris of around 1830, this production moves it up to the 1890s, the decade when Puccini actually wrote his opera. “This was a period when photography and the new invention of cinema were beginning to change the kinds of dreams people had for their lives, and also the way they looked back at their past,” Zvulun explains. “By this time, especially in an urban setting like Paris, street photographers were becoming popular and laying the groundwork for the likes of George Brassaï. And so we decided to evoke a world that is very cinematic, very nostalgic, where what happens to us today becomes memory tomorrow.”

Zvulun and company invented a silent character who appears in the second act. Set at Cafe Momus, it remains one of the most thrilling crowd scenes in all opera. "[The character] is a street photographer who gets the Bohemians to pose for a group picture," says Zvulun. "That's the last image you see as the act ends. In the duet between Rodolfo and Marcello in the fourth act, there's a moment when their attention is directed to a picture frame and it's the image from the cafe, from their past, that we see projected."

Indeed Zvulun believes Puccini’s art is comparable on several levels to what we find in cinema, which may be another reason he seems to speak so naturally to us. “I think what he did is similar to two great filmmakers: Charlie Chaplin and Stephen Spielberg. They know how to be intensely emotional without having to become sentimental. The role of a good interpreter of Puccini is not to ham it up with big gestures, but to walk that line.”

Feature film version of “La Bohème” from 2007

Intepreting "La Boheme" well also means giving attention to the comedy that is always in counterpoint to the looming tragedy. Puccini’s “realism” in the opera is about putting ordinary flesh-and-blood characters onstage, but it works because of the realistic quality of his pacing. “I have immense respect for Puccini because he knew how timing works in the theater like no other composer," says Zvulun. "Friendship is also central to this opera. At the beginning of the last act, for example, he shows these friends having fun and goofing around. At the height of the comedy, when Musetta comes in with news about Mimì, we get a punch in the stomach.”

Zvulun says he’s continually amazed by how much he learns from collaborating with his colleagues — in this case conductor Carlo Montanaro, scenic designer Erhard Rom, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel — about an opera he thought he knew inside-out. The most vital insight they’ve come up with in this “La Bohème,” says Zvulun, is “a sense of our relationship to memories and what our life was as we look back on it that I think is very human. Puccini found the musical manifestation for that, and we’re trying to shine just a little different light on his masterpiece.”

If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini opens on Saturday, February 23, and runs through March 10 at McCaw Hall,  321 Mercer St., 206 389-7676.

 

 

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