La Bohème Review
It may only be the middle of January and only the third film I’ve seen at the cinema this year, but I think it’s already safe to say that there’s little likelihood of there being another film this year that will leave me as shaken to the core by its sheer emotional force as La Bohème. To be honest though, I could have been almost certain of this sight unseen since, reluctant though I am to admit it, Puccini’s sweeping and emotionally manipulative opera always has just such an impact on me. And indeed, the true artistry of the work lies there in the work of Puccini and his librettist Luigi Illica, whereas the qualities of Robert Dornhelm’s direction on this film adaptation it must be said are considerably lesser.
I say the opera always has that kind of impact but, truth be told, there are many factors involved in getting the right combination of casting, acting, direction, performance and chemistry where any one factor can prevent La Bohème from hitting the mark, as I discovered watching one production many years ago at the ENO where I found myself longing for someone to mercifully put one weak, pathetic and barely audible Mimi out of the misery of her slow agonising death. The chances of that being the case in this production with the young "dream team" of Anna Netrebko in the role of Mimi and Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo were however slim.
If you consider the information in the previous paragraph about Mimi’s death a spoiler, then this film probably isn’t for you since such a fate for classic opera heroines is commonplace if not practically mandatory. Our little Parisian seamstress’s cards are clearly marked from her first appearance on the screen when, tottering up to the dilapidated garret apartment of a group of four bohemian artists in the Latin Quarter of 1830s Paris, she splutters a tubercular cough and faints into the arms of Rodolfo, a writer working on a last minute article for money, having burnt his latest play in order to keep momentarily warm. Another reason why Robert Dornhelm’s adaptation is more likely to appeal to the opera fan rather than the regular film viewer is that it remains resolutely stage-bound – not filmed live or on stage, 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 naturalism has little to do either with Puccini’s adaptation of Henri Murger’s collection of stories in Scènes de la vie Bohème, the romance that develops between the seamstress and the poet being rather precipitous (particularly in this version which takes their introduction a little bit further than usual) and somewhat schematic, the four acts of the opera 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 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. 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 works well suited to a Puccini opera and particularly to the role of Rodolfo, but his acting remains very much in the theatrical style. Anna Netrebko however fares rather better as a screen diva. The character of Mimi 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), plays 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 desperation. Netrebko 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. 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 moments, nothing 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 garret scene ("Che gelida manina", "Si, mi chiamano Mimi"). In the final analysis however, this matters less than the fact that a cinema theatre is in any case a poor substitute for the ambience that a live performance can give in an opera house and, within those limitations, the pairing of Netrebko and Villazón in La Bohème is a fine one, certainly one worth preserving on film, and this production does that admirably well.
La Bohème is currently on limited release across the UK. Details of showings can be found on the Axiom Films website.