Mr. Gelb’s tenure at the Met has brought a new “Carmen,” “Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Barber of Seville,” “Rigoletto,” “Cav/Pag” and “Ring” cycle. A new “Aida” is coming in a few seasons (starring Ms. Netrebko). The central repertory has been, for better and worse, almost entirely overhauled over the past 10 years. “La Bohème” alone remains untouchable.
It occupies a position in the canon that is unusual even by opera’s stubbornly backward-looking standards, particularly in Europe. The Vienna State Opera and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan both still use Zeffirelli stagings from 1963, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich continues to present an Otto Schenk one from 1969.
But this fall brings a highly unusual coincidence: new productions of the opera at two of Europe’s most important houses. At the Royal Opera in London, Richard Jones’s fresh version — the company’s first since 1974 — recently finished its premiere run here and will return in June. And on Dec. 1, the Paris Opera will unveil Claus Guth’s provocative staging, set a century from now.
These new takes on this classic of classics raise the question of whether “La Bohème” should be messed with at all. We seem to have an almost instinctive desire for this piece to remain the same, to be the opera we encountered as children. Is that something we should resist or accept?
Credit Catherine Ashmore
And if it’s indeed fair game for new approaches: How? When a director sets Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at, say, the dawn of industrialization, it illuminates new aspects of a deep, ambiguous work. But while doing “Bohème” in the 1950s or, à la “Rent,” in the AIDS-era East Village may involve a change of clothes, it’s still the same, simple love story.
So forget should you do a new “Bohème”: Can you do a new — a really new — “Bohème”? Is there an approach to this work that isn’t just moving the attic stove, a fixture of the libretto, from stage right to left to center?
Mr. Jones’s strong, even hyperbolic, Royal Opera production tries diligently to bridge old-fashioned and progressive. It begins with the element perhaps most associated with the piece: snow, already falling gently onstage in front of the curtain as the audience enters.
The Victorian-era costumes are detailed and elaborate, a contrast with the austere settings, often flooded in harsh frontal lighting. There is hardly any furniture in the young bohemians’ Paris garret, making the space resemble an empty stage. The audience can see the backstage workings throughout: the lighting rigs, even the snow machine tube rotating overhead in the flies.
The sets of previous acts are visible just offstage; scene changes take place in full view. You can see stagehand markings in chalk on the back of the set pieces; the characters then make their own charcoal drawings — musical notes and all — in the final act. We are in a theater, Mr. Jones is at pains to remind us, and this is an opera.
Credit Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Within this lightly Brechtian frame, the acting is more or less naturalistic, with a few cartoonish touches. In the first act, when she comes upstairs to light her candle, the already ill Mimì faints dead away; rather than being concerned, Rodolfo is almost amused, tapping her with his foot. In the second act, at Café Momus, the hellcat Musetta doesn’t just flirt with the crowd but pulls off her underwear and throws it; she and her estranged lover, Marcello, boisterously kiss the same woman. (Suffice to say a bit of casual bisexuality isn’t on offer in most “Bohème” productions.)
The staging manages to infuse the old war horse with a genuine mood — a real, if occasionally exaggerated, melancholy — without alienating those looking for hoop skirts and a parade at the end of Act 2. But in the end, it’s more or less just a shift of the stove.
The coming Paris production, the details of which are being closely kept, will not be nearly so indulgent of audience expectations. “The second the curtain opens, you have a fist in your face,” Mr. Guth, the director, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Guth, acclaimed for stylized, even surreal productions that nevertheless remain moored to reality, hadn’t thought his style was a good match for Puccini, and he didn’t like the clichés about artists endemic to “Bohème” stagings. But listening to the music alone and brainstorming conceptual approaches brought him to the 1851 Henri Murger book on which the libretto is based.
“In the end,” he said, “it turns out that these men meet again. They look back, and they are not now artists. They are now established bourgeoisie. They remember their youth, when they were doing wild stuff.”
So his “Bohème,” which will star Sonya Yoncheva and Atalla Ayan and be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, takes the form of a kind of flashback to a lost time — much as Paris today, he observed, is a kind of fantasy of what the city once was.
“He wants to put ‘La Bohème’ at the end of the 21st century, in the future,” Stéphane Lissner, the general director of the Paris Opera, said in an interview in his office. “To speak about what is the artist’s situation, what is the memory we have of the past.”
The marketing image on the company’s website is a futuristic-looking pod, which is apparently where at least some of the action will take place. This radical intervention replaces Jonathan Miller’s staging from 1995, which updated the opera to the 1930s Left Bank but otherwise left it mostly alone. That staging has, Mr. Lissner said, “not one idea for me. The Jonathan Miller is for me absolutely nothing. So it’s time to try.”
Mr. Guth’s concept bears some similarity to the director Stefan Herheim’s, unveiled in Oslo in 2012 and available on a crucial DVD. That production uses the traditional storybook sets of the Norwegian National Opera’s 1963 “Bohème,” but begins with a bleakly modern scene: a hospital room in which a man’s lover has just died of cancer.
The “La Bohème” we know then emerges as his fantasy of her recuperation, though a fantasy shot through with intimations of darkness and death. As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the doctors and nurses from the hospital also populate this Rodolfo’s dream world; it is one of the saddest, loveliest spectacles I’ve ever seen.
Credit Catherine Ashmore
Mr. Herheim’s staging is about loss and denial. It’s also about what we seek from opera, the kind of escape into an idyllic past — our culture’s and our own — that we get from productions like Mr. Zeffirelli’s, which over the past 35 years at the Met has played nearly 500 performances and sold 650,000 tickets.
I would not want to be without Mr. Herheim’s vision, which celebrates, without undue indulgence, the sentimentality that permeates “La Bohème.” But I’ve lately been more than reconciled to the Zeffirelli, the age and familiarity of which have added a poignancy that enhances the piece — that, in some sense, completes it.
I felt differently about the Met’s ancient production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” finally replaced last season. The old staging had grown dull and dowdy — and besides, “Rosenkavalier” is not just a simulacrum of 18th-century Vienna but is also about what the new version, set on the cusp of World War I, made more vivid: the change of generations, the war of the classes, the end of a world.
The old “Rosenkavalier” didn’t evoke any of those depths; the Zeffirelli “Bohème,” on the other hand, really does give us “La Bohème,” in all its shallow brilliance and beauty. The nostalgia we feel for it has become as much a part of the opera as Puccini’s score. I look forward to the avant-garde iteration of the staging that will commence in a few decades, when the singers will need to negotiate a literally decomposing set; what better symbol of Mimì’s fatal consumption?
But, until then, why move the stove merely to move it?
“Whether you like them or don’t like them, we have changed the core repertory at the Met,” Mr. Gelb said. “This is a piece that just defies that agenda.”