Updating the operatic classics is nothing new, but doing so with “La Bohème” can be a risky prospect. No opera is more broadly popular nor more closely tied to certain visual expectations. The settings of the action — the garret, Café Momus, and the toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer — are as iconic as they come, and for plenty of viewers Rodolfo, Mimì, and company are inseparable from images of a storybook Parisian past. Even the Met’s Peter Gelb, who has jettisoned some beloved traditional stagings, has not had the temerity to touch Franco Zeffirelli’s sweeping, cinematic “Bohème.” It remains sacrosanct.
So one has to applaud Boston Lyric Opera for the boldness of its new production that opened on Friday night at the Shubert Theatre. Forget about Paris of 1830. It’s now May 1968, and revolution is afoot in the Latin Quarter. The old gang also has some updates to share. Rodolfo is now a filmmaker, Marcello a painter besotted with Che Guevara, Mimì a proletarian given a pink hat. The garret is a squatters’ apartment with graffiti. The toll gate is a pile of urban debris made into a daunting barricade.
Simply describing modern updates can often seem like a way of disparaging them. But while the details of this production’s execution are hit or miss, its creative team deserves credit for its overall thoughtfulness. The production is the first American staging by the Italian director Rosetta Cucchi, who worked with a concept hatched by John Conklin, BLO’s artistic advisor, who also designed the sets. Obviously “Bohème” requires no tinkering to hit its emotional mark, but by the same token, it is robust enough to handle a director’s wish to explore new directions, and to bring the score in dialogue with an era closer to the cultural memory of many audience members.
On one level this new setting works intuitively. After all, for viewers today, what could be more romantic than the Paris unrest of May 1968, full of high ideals and utopian potential if also doomed to failure. At this staging’s heart, Cucchi finds an effective mirror for the revolution in the flowering of the ill-starred love between Rodolfo and Mimi. Political, social, and operatic parallels are played up here through video projection, the rethinking of famous crowd scenes, and a very free adaptation of supertitles.
That said, in this director’s zeal to strip away old clichés, she sometimes simply swaps them for newer ones. The evening also makes for some odd bedfellows as it’s hard not to wonder how comfortably “Bohème” sits today — as a symbol of operatic traditionalism — with the works referenced here by Jean-Luc Godard, Albert Camus, and others. Moreover, if Puccini were around in the Paris of 1968, whose side would he have been on? During his lifetime, the composer largely steered clear of politics, but still, as one biographer summarized, he “invariably gravitated toward the right.” Describing Mussolini, Puccini wrote in an optimistic letter from 1922: “Good luck to him if he will cleanse and give a little peace to our country.”
Of course, estranging a work we know all too well is clearly part of Cucchi’s goal, and it was refreshing to leave a performance of “Bohème” not only in the sway of its narcotic score, but also thinking afresh about its subtexts. Where this production allows the traffic among its fields of comparison to remain subtle and suggestive, it proves compelling. The more heavy-handed moments are, conversely, the least persuasive and at times threaten to overshadow the living breathing opera. One frustrating moment occurs in the production’s final seconds, when Mimì has just died and Rodolfo’s anguished cries have rung out over the orchestra. This intensely poignant scene needs space to register its fullest impact, but precisely here Cucchi drops in one last high-minded philosophical quote. I wished she had instead opted for directorial humility and given Puccini’s libretto the final word.
Fortunately, in plenty of other key moments, this staging knows to step back and let audiences revel in the music they came for. A solid cast sang affectingly on Friday, with Kelly Kaduce as a sure-voice and sympathetic Mimì, and Jesus Garcia an ardent and involving Rodolfo. Emily Birsan capably sang the role of Musetta, and Brandon Cedel and Andrew Garland honorably rounded out the crew as Colline and Schaunard, respectively. It was also a pleasure to have the veteran James Maddalena as Benoit and Alcindoro. Conductor David Angus emphasized forward motion in the pit, and the orchestra responded. Interestingly, at intermission one could hear grumbling about directorial liberties. But by the night’s end, the large crowd was up on its feet showering the performers in what appeared to be unanimous appreciation.
Puccini’s “La Bohème”
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. David Angus, conductor. At Shubert Theatre, Friday night (runs through Oct. 11)