Two contemporary stagings of Puccini's "La Boheme" from 2012 have been released on DVD: director Stefan Herheim's reimagining that opened in January at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo (on Electric), and Damiano Michieletto's staging that premiered in July at the Salzburg Festival in Austria (on DG). Both are equally fascinating and frustrating.
Taking the 1963 sets by Heike Scheele that he grew up watching, Herheim begins the opera with Mimi's death - usually the performance's final moment. And she succumbs to cancer rather than consumption.
Only after Mimi flatlines does the music begin, and the opera is a series of flashbacks in Rodolfo's mind as he refuses to accept her death. Rodolfo's garret transforms into a hospital ward and back.
Mimi alternately appears to be somewhat healthful looking and bald from her treatments. Much of the chorus is also bald in the jarring Christmas Eve scene at the Cafe Momus, and the landlord Benoit, the toy salesman Parpignol, the drum major and Musetta's friend, Alcindoro, all are haunting personifications of death. Marcello and Musetta sometimes morph into medical staff.
Much of the poetry is lost in the third act, intended by Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica to be set on the snowy outskirts of Paris, but here the surroundings divert to a hospital Reparto di Oncologia that includes a patient with an IV tube.
Jennifer Rowley (Musetta) gives the best portrayal, with Marita Solberg (Mimi), Diego Torre (Rodolfo) and Vasilij Ladjuk (Marcello) somewhat stiff, as if they were confined by the direction. Conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen has difficulty establishing a flowing mood and pace.
"La Boheme" had never appeared at the Salzburg Festival until last summer's contemporary staging on the wide stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus, which featured a starry cast headed by Anna Netrebko (Mimi) and Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo), the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Daniele Gatti.
Michieletto's wackiest idea was to set the second act filled with cart-pushing Christmas Eve shoppers on what appears to be a Google map of Paris' Latin Quarter created by set designer Paolo Fantin. His best was to set the third act by a snow-filled highway off ramp with a food truck as sanitation workers went about their business and end-of-night partygoers walked by.
Rodolfo is a filmmaker whose garret has a high glass wall that allows an unseen person to write "Mimi" in huge letters with a finger on the condensation. Mimi wears a black leather jacket, has a blue streak in her hair and tattoos on her neck and the inside of her left forearm. Parpignol is an acrobat in a superhero suit.
Netrebko's plush soprano thrills, as does Beczala's ringing tenor, and Nino Machaidze (Musetta) and Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello) combine for a top-level ensemble. Even those not thrilled by staging will be entertained by the singing.