First published in The Herald on 16 August, 2017
Winter of 1896, Teatro Regio, Turin. The star conductor Arturo Toscanini, not yet 30, premieres the latest opera by Giacomo Puccini to polarised reaction. Some factions of the audience can’t understand why they’ve just spent an evening watching the grotty minutiae of impoverished nobodies; surely opera is the platform for gods and noblemen. The streets of Paris have been revealed as dirty and cold. We see tough prostitution, the unnecessary death of a beautiful young woman whose only fault is to be poor. And the music – so compact, so direct, so impatient. Where are the luxuriant expanses of Verdi and Wagner? What new operatic urban realism is Puccini getting at?
It wouldn’t take long for the world to come round in a major way to the devastating emotional impact, not to mention the killer tunes, of La boheme. “The biggest problem is that it is too famous,” says Gianandrea Noseda, who conducts a glossy modern-day production at the Edinburgh International Festival next week. The company he helms is the Teatro Regio — the same Turin house that premiered La boheme 120 years ago. And if he feels the weight of that legacy, he says it only ups the onus to strip away a century-plus of dubious performance history.
“You have to forget what has been done in the past,” he says. “You have to go back to the text. This opera I consider to be in the DNA of the Teatro Regio. The risk with something that is so often performed is that it becomes too familiar, that you don’t appreciate the jewels, so we have a responsibility to pay particular attention to detail.”
In preparing this production Noseda went back to Puccini’s manuscripts, housed in a museum in Milan, and his own preconceptions of La boheme started to shift. “I thought this music was all about big lines. There are big lines, but it’s also an incredibly detailed score. The way Puccini uses the colour of the instruments. And the indications he includes –– a lot of them didn’t make it into the first printed edition. For example, there are so many quiet moments, dialogue that should be sung sotto voce. What’s important is that the markings are so subtle. This piece is not molto anything. We as conductors tend to overdo Puccini. It’s like putting too much wine in your arrabbiata. Tempting, but you need to stop after two tablespoons.”
Noseda is adamant that La boheme belongs to the 20th century: that it was the dawn of modern opera rather than the twilight of romantic opera. “Puccini refuses to respect old forms,” he reasons. “La boheme sounds like soundtrack music for a film – in the best possible way. The music absolutely serves the story. Verdi, Wagner, they needed so much more time to get their points across, but cinema didn’t exist in their time. They didn’t need to be so urgent. Puccini never composed for cinema, but I like to think he would have if he’d survived his cancer.” (A chronic chain smoker, the composer died of throat cancer in 1924.) “Cinema is the art of the 20th century,” says Noseda, “and Puccini belongs in that frame of reference.”
“He also wrote incredibly fast. Some of the notes aren’t even clear in the manuscript, as though the fluency of the ideas was faster than what he could write down. He had this kind of urgency. A sense that youth is urgent. The characters of La boheme are urgent. They want to go out, the want to party, then suddenly one of them dies and that youth is over. That’s how it is – you realise one day it isn’t there anymore.”
For Noseda, the message is clear: that to be alive is the biggest gift. “It’s not an opera of high-level philosophy,” he says. “It should sound very fresh and very alive. Above all, Puccini wanted to tell a story and to tell it quickly. I don’t understand why he is considered sugared and sentimental. He goes to the core of a story without any sentimentality that might destroy the moment. He was a master dramaturge in music.” Noseda’s own conducting matches: his navigation of La boheme is staunch, rigorous, no sweeteners in earshot.
What about the production, directed by Alex Olle? Noseda says it “emphasises the 20th century modernity of La boheme – the fact that this opera is not just a beautiful fairy tale. It’s a strong opera. With this production we were able to take out any fairytale elements, like removing dust that has accumulated over the years.” As one of the artistic directors of the Catalan theatre collective La Fura dels Baus, Olle is known for clever video graphics and grand stagings, but his treatment of Boheme is essentially conventional. His smartest move is to shift the setting out of the Latin Quarter – shabby in the 1840s of the original, ultra chichi nowadays – and instead locate the drama in the Paris banlieue. Tower blocks are punctuated with low-grade air conditioning units. We watch drug deals, prostitutes, a man sleeping rough with belongings stuffed into a Lidl bag.
Plenty of stagings have updated the drama into something more hard-hitting. Two years ago, Benedict Andrews had Mimi and Rodolfo shooting heroin in his production for English National Opera. When I saw Olle’s version in Turin, I wondered whether the treatment was too glossy, too tame to replicate the stark social commentary that so shocked Puccini’s original audience. “Missed opportunity,” I scribbled in my notebook. “Why shy away from showing the audience what life in the schemes is really like?”
Now it feels as though there were some kind of dark prescience at play. This production was unveiled nearly a year ago in Turin, but next week it will be hard to look at the set — a blackened exoskeletal of a tower block, rooms that seem to cage the characters — without imagining the carcass of Grenfell. Noseda agrees. He mentions the young Italian couple who were lost in that fire. “They had moved to the UK to look for work, for a future,” he says. “There are so many ways to destroy the hope of youth. It could be drugs, a car accident, serious illness. In our production Mimi is undergoing chemotherapy. Or it could be governments failing.”
“Art is not always created to deal with politics,” he adds. “The composer doesn’t necessarily want to make a political statement in every note he writes. But art can’t avoid being political. Whatever I do is a political act, even if I’m not running for presidency in Italy.”
Gianandrea Noseda conducts La boheme at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 25-27