Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Carl Sr Clair
Director: Andreas Homoki
Mimi: Brigitte Geller
Rodolphe: Timothy Richards
Musetta: Mirka Wagner
Marcello: Tom Erik Lie
The last opera on the program as my fantastic trip is slowly coming to an end, La Bohème was another must-see not only for the sheer pleasure of hearing Puccini's beautifully melodic music, but also to check out Berlin's famous Komische Oper. As I had heard that its ugly bunker-like modern facade hid a grandly decorated interior, I of course had to go check it out for myself. I was also aware that it specializes in German works, and that all performances taking place on that stage had to be in German. Needless to say I was curious to see how Puccini and the German language would mix (or not) and figured that I might also witness this enduring classic among operas get a contemporary treatment too, which made the adventure even more intriguing.
As I was stepping in the richly, but not ostentatiously, decorated auditorium, I did notice that the stage promised a modern production indeed. Bare, except for a grey wall covering the background, it had absolutely nothing to do with a Parisian artist's garret, but I decided to roll with it.
The story got underway with the four destitute buddies trying to generate some heat and escape the landlord on Christmas' Eve, and the familiarity with the action and music sure helped deal with, if not get over, the weirdness of hearing the well-known score sung in German. As the plot was predictably unfolding, that language thing just wouldn't go away, especially when Mimi turned up with her extinguished candle and the much loved arias "Che gelida manina" and "Mi chiamano Mimi", which are so essential in establishing the two main characters, rose competently, yes, but not as enchantingly as in Italian, that's for sure. The German language's inherent harshness was truly an odd match to Puccini's gloriously lyrical composition, and that did not quite compute for me.
That, of course, does not mean that the singing was not praise-worthy. Looking eerily like a young Jeff Daniels, Timothy Richards' Rodolfo was most of the time as endearingly immature as can be and did carry his love for Mimi across loudly, if not always subtly. Poor sweet Mimi was wonderfully impersonated by Brigitte Geller whose light but powerful voice enhanced her vulnerability. As Musetta, Mirka Wagner first appeared as a vulgar high-priced hooker, but eventually redeemed herself at Mimi's deathbed, and as her sometimes paramour, Tom Erik Lie was a reliable Marcello.
The production had made cool choices, such as bringing a huge Christmas tree and laying on the side on the stage during the first act, having it stand up and decorated by the chorus during the second act, and setting up a dreamy half-prepared banquet during the final act, all revelatory hints to quickly situate the action, but discreet enough not to be distracting. The snow, for example, which had actually started falling before the start of the performance and would do so sporadically as the story was unfolding, may be an easy effect, but it is always a winner: pretty-looking and unmistakeably evocative of cold and winter. The well-coordinated chorus tended to appear even when not called for, making the stage much more crowded than it needed to be, but also adding a Bretchian distance to the proceedings as they were watching the main characters interact.
The best decision though, was to have the opera performed without intermission, therefore making the evening fly by and wrapping things up in less than two hours. Another proof that this can be done successfully, and should in fact be done more often, especially for the less strenuous operas where breaks amount to little more than a waste of time for the audience (but probably a gain for the concession stands).