La Bohème Review

There is no reason, in theory, why it should be any more difficult to bring an opera to the film screen than any other piece of musical theatre. In the case of opera, actually, one would think it should be relatively straightforward – the most popular repertory operas have at least a hundred or two hundred years of conventional productions and experimental stagings behind them, ample time to explore and fine tune the dramatic core of a piece. With opera however, there are however other technical considerations and conceptual decisions that have to be made when adapting it for the screen as a movie as opposed to the more common approach of shooting it as a filmed stage production. At its most successful, in Brian Large’s live TV film version of Tosca or in Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni, there is a something to be gained from the filming of scenes in the actual locations specified in the libretto (The Roman locations of Castel San Angelo and others in Tosca and the Venetian Palladian constructs of Don Giovanni), that go some way to helping the viewer see past the exaggerated theatrical mannerisms and problematic issue of integrating and syncing the live or recorded singing performances to the dramatic action.

A literal approach may in some cases be the best way of counteracting the heightened emotional realism of conventional opera performances when brought to the screen, but, just as with stage performances of opera, there is room for a more naturalistic or experimental approach when the themes are sufficiently universal and not necessarily tied to the period. Such would perhaps be expected to be the case with Puccini’s La Bohème, which relates a familiar subject that has not dated in the 100 or so years since its writing. It may be set in a Paris of the 1830s, where guards patrol the gates to the city, where starving poets and artists suffer for their art in freezing garrets, and pale heroines die long drawn-out deaths from tuberculosis in the name of love, but essentially the theme is as old as the hills – it’s about the joys and the vicissitudes of love. It’s somewhat surprising then that the film’s director, Robert Dornhelm, with two of the brightest young stars in opera on board for a feature film adaptation of Puccini’s classic tear-jerker La Bohème, settles for an approach that remains resolutely stage-bound – not filmed live, on location or during performance, but using opera production values, sets, lighting, costumes, theatrical acting and mannerisms that belong very much to a traditional period staging of the opera.

Naturalism is not the operative word for Dornhelm’s approach to this film version of La Bohème, but then really, naturalism has little to do either with Puccini’s adaptation of Henry Murger’s collection of stories in Scènes de la vie Bohème. Even accepting the notion of love at first sight, the romance that develops here between a seamstress and a poet is rather precipitous (particularly in this film version which takes their introduction a little bit further than usual with a bedroom coda to Act 1) and the structure of the opera is somewhat schematic, the four acts being divided fairly equally into the birth of love, the joy of love, the torment of love and the death of love. What gives this romance conviction in Puccini’s musical scoring is the harmonisation, both vocal and emotional, that exists between the two leads, and the counterbalance to this in the tempestuous relationship between Musetta and Marcello, which brilliantly follows a similar trajectory but practically in reverse. Quite wonderfully, Puccini's score plays on this reversal and counterpoint in the overall structure with the repetition of themes - in one scene making Mimi's theme express the discovery of love, and in another using the same theme to express the end of love, as if they are indeed just flip-sides of the same emotion.

There can be no doubts about the evident chemistry between Netrebko and Villazón, a partnership that has achieved much acclaim and success in recent years, and that is successfully carried across to the screen in this film version of La Bohème. Rolando Villazón’s intensity, enthusiasm and expressiveness is well suited to the overheated emotional content of a Puccini opera and particularly to the role of Rodolfo, but his acting remains very much in the theatrical style. Anna Netrebko’s more demure and reserved performance perhaps fares somewhat better when transferred to the screen, without losing any of her character’s necessary reserves of emotional depth. The character of Mimi, signalled quite clearly from early on as being ready to pop her clogs at any moment, can be somewhat pathetic (in the pathos sense of the word), but Netrebko, as we’ve already seen in her performance of Violetta in La Traviata alongside Villazón again (reviewed here), has the ability to play the doomed heroine who is unlucky in love without sentimentality. Despite the urgent emotional underscoring of Puccini’s music that almost demands a heightened performance to match, she manages to give her character a small sense of dignity and nobility, reacting to her circumstances with quiet passion and internalised desperation. Netrebko’s breakdown scene with Rodolfo in the snow by the tavern in Act 3 in particular is magnificent, her Mimi writhing around like a soul in torment, on the verge of breaking up with her love and close to death, yet driven to keep going by the sheer force of the love that exists between them – one that is fully felt despite the vast ellipses in the storyline between acts. The beautiful heart-rending quartet with Musetta and Marcello that ends this scene is also marvellously performed, another highlight of the production.

As good as all this is in operatic terms, Robert Dornhelm’s filming of La Bohème doesn’t particularly distinguish itself on the screen. While there are one or two distinctive and effective moments, nothing really feels inspired and, at best, the direction can be described as functional, serving the material reasonably well in a traditional staging that feels familiar from countless other productions right down to the lighting, colouration and décor. At worst however, the dissolves, superimpositions and split screens employed are simply a distraction, being particularly overused in Mimi and Rodolfo’s respective introductions in their garret scene ("Chi son? Sono un poeta" and "Si, mi chiamano Mimi"), while the lip-syncing – technically largely unavoidable, though some of it was recorded live – only adds to the lack of naturalism.

Uninspired and uninspiring though this may be, ultimately this production of La Bohème is indeed about the singing and playing of Netrebko and Villazón, and Dornhelm’s production, for all its safe and traditional staging, provides a more than adequate platform for that to be enjoyed by audiences for years to come, and succeeds moreover in wringing out all the emotional charge from what still remains a powerful and moving opera.


La Bohème is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Axiom Films. The disc is BD50 and the film comes with a 1080/50i encode. Inevitably, this has an impact on the running time, which consequently runs to 109 minutes as opposed to the theatrical running time of 115. Whether this has an impact depends on the original source - it may have been shot at 25fps and slowed down for theatrical release, but I have no information to suggest this is the case. If the image has been speeded up to make it 50i, this could have implications for the accuracy of the audio, but the Blu-ray this may have been pitch corrected to allow for this. I am trying to get clarification on these issues from Axiom Films and will update the review if I get any further information. Extra features are Standard Definition PAL (576/50i). The disc is All Region.

While the film often looks great, and there are certainly no serious problems with the transfer, the benefits of the High Definition transfer are not always evident on this Blu-ray release. Perhaps on account of the colour timing and the bright lighting that looks more theatrical than naturalistic, contrasts are strong and shadows are exceptionally dark. The transfer does exhibit signs of being somewhat DVNR processed, with haloing also being visible in places, but overall detail and colouration however are good and the image does retains a little grain that keeps it looking like it is from a proper 35mm film negative. Stability and fluidity are relatively good, but some minor flicker may be detected in backgrounds.

The audio track comes in the form of a fine DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with a supplemental Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The handling of the sound is wonderful on the lossless DTS track, the surround distribution enveloping and effective. Vocals remains up front and, in the main, the singing is clear and warmly toned, hitting the high points without any trouble and balancing vocal harmonisation well. I thought I could detect some distracting microphone sounds and noise on the track in one or two places where the recording is less than perfect, but not with any kind of frequency. I detected no such problems with the orchestration, the lossless audio track enabling the instrumentation to achieve a wonderful natural tone, with fine dynamic, particularly in the clear rounded bass tones.

English subtitles only are included. They are optional and in a white font. When spread across two lines, the subtitles lie partly in and partly outside the frame. I wasn’t entirely happy with the translation which is just plain inaccurate in places, and also prone to miss out not insignificant lines. Apparently, the subtitles were supervised personally by the director, so I think this is another area where his decisions are less than effective.

Interviews are conducted with the director Robert Dornhelm (23:14), with Anna Netrebko (6:00) on the character of Mimi as opposed to Musetta, with Rolando Villazón (5:10) on the film experience and how it differs from opera, with Nicole Cabell (2:47) on her toning down of Musetta and with Geroge von Bergen on the opera itself and Marcello’s role in it. It’s Dornhelm’s interview which is most revealing, the director admitting that he initially edited the film with numerous green-screen effects and blending (the utterly kitsch results can be seen briefly in the Making Of). He confesses that he has no great feeling for opera, and that in the case of La Bohème he believes that there was no reason to reinvent or modernise, since opera it is a dying artform that belongs in a museum – an incredible and telling admission that I personally couldn’t disagree with more.

The Making of La Bohème (28:31) however is rather good – taking time to interview the cast on their feelings (most of the interview footage is reused here), before getting behind the scenes and eavesdropping in on the rehearsal and filming. Since an opera film production is rather different from a regular film production, this is very interesting indeed. There are also some very funny outtakes at the end, and – of course – footage of Villazón goofing around on the set. Great fun.

The extras are rounded out with a Trailer (1:30) and a Stills Gallery of 21 promo stills. A booklet is also included with the package.

While there is no substitute for the ambience of a live performance in an opera house, the High Definition image and sound on Axiom’s Blu-ray release of La Bohème is certainly the next best thing and, for most of us, the only real option to see the pairing of Netrebko and Villazón in one of the most dramatic and romantic of operas. Yet again, their collaboration and respective qualities proves to be perfectly matched, and even within the limitations of a filmed performance and Robert Dornhelm’s mostly rather uninspired, traditional staging that plays safe in aiming for the opera fan more than the cinema-goer, there are nonetheless some truly great moments that make it all more than worthwhile.

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