Thursday, December 24, 2009

La Boheme: The Movie

Just when you find yourself wondering “can I take another Boheme?” Puccini’s score proves itself one of the most evergreen in the operatic canon. This film was a fairly faithful representation of a “traditional” Boheme with minimal liberties taken by the director – generally to good effect.

Subtitles seemed a mite wrongheaded and sometimes downright awkward sometimes as much as half the text seemed to go untranslated then at other points so many titles were going one couldn’t both watch the action and read the titles.

This is where I ran into a few problems: Knowing Boheme by heart (I’ve been in a half dozen - in a variety of roles) since my student days – including a touring production) and with no way to turn the titles off – my eyes kept wandering to the bottom of the picture – then looking up and being jarred by middle-aged singers/actors playing at being young with varying degrees of success.

There were other issues, and one can endlessly quibble away picking the thing apart to make it “the worst movie ever” – but I found FAR more here to enjoy than to complain about, particularly the performances of Villazon and Netrebko who made a wonderfully believable pair of lovers. I very much liked Netrebko’s more mature and slightly less innocent approach to Mimi rather than trying to have a go at being 19 or 20, which would have not worked in either voice or body (loved her pulling Rodolfo into her room on their way to Momus. I found ending the act with the camera focusing solely on the candle a stroke of genius – the simplicity of it bursting with multiple symbolisms. Just beautiful.

Momus was fun, and despite the opulence, actually feeling more stripped down and lower key than most live productions (the Met has more people in Act II alone than this entire movie!) The lighting – with a delicious almost golden glow to the scene – was enchanting as was Nicole Caball’s “Thoroughly Modern Musetta.” The director did yeoman’s work here, beautifully balancing the stage picture far more than the score typically allows where the tendency is to focus almost exclusively on Musetta, forgetting there are other people singing throughout the act.

Having the camera drop in on Mimi & Rodolfo throughout the scene, we became privy to their “I only have eyes for you” exchanges otherwise impossible live, as these are typically swallowed up by the swirl of activity going on about them. This afforded that tone of sweet oblivion where, when in first flushes of love and passion, the very world disappears. It was in little touches such as these where I felt this Boheme made its strongest mark and made a strong case for its being “La Boheme: The Movie.”

I felt the film worked best in the third act where Netrebko poured on the sound and emotion, looking terrifyingly frail, giving me a little start as when we first see her from behind, she’s lurching forward almost as one already dead. She was also working the Louise Brooks melting eyes to the furthest limits. She broke my heart in the scene with Marcello, followed by my favorite moment of the entire opera; her overhearing Marcello and Rodolfo’s conversation. This is where I judge EVERY Boheme – if it can turn me into a sniveling, teary mess, well then, I’m sold. I was sold.

Villazon’s hyperactive nature seemed to infect his fellow Bohemians – particularly so in the first act where the pacing tended toward the frenetic. But he really did own this Rodolfo and I genuinely LIKED the character he made him out to be (though again, he wasn’t always helped by the poor titling). The singing from all was generally gorgeous and I liked the filmic aspects which were mostly tasteful and allowed for reaction shots.

And can I just say how wonderful it was to see opera (even filmed opera) on Public Television and what a joyous gift I found it to be for this time of year. So, kvetch away ye olde curmudgeons, if this be where thou dost find thy joy.

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