Rodolfo is a filmmaker living in student squalor, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in Damiano Michieletto’s cinematic “La Boheme” at the Salzburg Festival.
He and his friends fight over the one armchair and squander what little money they get. A huge steamed-up window with raindrops trickling down serves as the melancholy backdrop. When Rodolfo falls in love, a giant hand projected onto the window writes “Mimi” in the condensation. As she dies in the final act, the hand writes the name again, then wipes it out for good.
Mimi (Anna Netrebko) knocks at Rodolfo’s door looking for a light for her cigarette (that explains the cough), not for her candle. As she sings her pretty though vacuous “Mi chiamano Mimi” aria, she borrows a DVD from Rodolfo’s collection and slips it into her bag.
Aside from the modern setting, it’s a conventional production of Puccini’s opera, and received warm applause from the opulently arrayed premiere-night Salzburg audience.
The loudest bravos were for conductor Daniele Gatti, Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo and Netrebko, whose rich voice belted out the soaring high passages with conviction. She sounded less sure on the low notes.
Puccini’s opera has been a crowd-pleaser since its premiere in 1896, with its popular ingredients -- young artists leading a carefree life; slick, fast dialogue; romantic arias and the pathos of a young, sick woman who is clearly destined to die at the end. Its inclusion in the Salzburg Festival repertoire is a first: until now, it was considered too populist.
In Michieletto’s production, Paris is shown as a map laid out on the stage with miniature-village buildings. The city is in a Christmas consumer rush, bustling with shopping-carts, people dressed in reindeer suits and kids clutching new video games.
Musetta (Nino Machaidze) has a cart full of designer shopping bags pushed by her elderly escort when she bumps into Marcello, the former lover she sets out to win back.
The most atmospheric act is the third, set on a desolate snowy roadside at dawn, where a comfortless trailer sells snacks and coffee. All-night revelers cross paths with rubbish collectors and market sellers. As Rodolfo confesses to Marcello that he can’t handle the responsibility of Mimi’s illness, she is crouched behind the trailer, listening.
The high jinks of the boys in the last act contain a note of desperation -- they are about to be thrown out of the apartment for not paying the rent and seem intent on trashing the place before they go. The fraught atmosphere presages the last scene well, as youthful innocence ends for all of them.
Apart from that, it all feels too smooth around the edges, little more than a well-executed, honeyed homage to the beauty and transitoriness of youth.
The Salzburg Festival runs through Sept. 2. For more information, go to http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/en
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)