LABELS: Axiom Films
WORKS: La bohème
PERFORMER: Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Nicole Cabell, Vitaly Kovalyov; Bavarian Radio Chorus & SO/Bertrand de Billy; dir. Robert Dornhelm (film, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: AXM 596 (PAL system; Dolby 5.1; 2.35:1 picture ratio)
With its youthful vitality, nostalgia and vivid characters, Bohème has attracted filmmakers since silent days, but never as convincingly as this. Karajan’s 1967 Zeffirelli-inspired studio film, vibrantly conducted and splendidly sung, depicts a cardboard Bohemia populated by short fat Peter Pans, while a 1987 French effort misguidedly updated it to the 1910s.
Here Oscar-nominated director Robert Dornhelm lends the story a darker glow, with Bertrand de Billy’s soft-centred but warm conducting and two superb star performances.
Villazón as Rodolfo, less expansively lyrical than Pavarotti, sings with a focused intensity which at times recalls Caruso, and makes a scruffily credible hero, his rubbery features shedding clownish self-mockery to reveal a desperate hunger for love.
Netrebko’s creamy-voiced Mimì is no naïve little seamstress; her scarlet satin and glamour-girl make-up suggest she’s been around, and she stages the candle-and-key business, but her anguish in Act III is no less heartfelt.
Cabell’s Musetta is more tartily conventional, and Marcello is dubbed onto a rather stolid actor. Colline is also underwhelming, but the acting Schaunard is excellent. The subtitles, unfortunately, are inept.
Dornhelm’s sombrely sumptuous images capture a credibly chilly, squalid, yet defiantly romantic milieu. Outdoor scenes betray studio origins; Montmartre looks uncharacteristically flat, and its Christmas bustle is actually better suggested by Karajan. A really good stage video – particularly Covent Garden’s, with credible lovers in Schicoff and Cotrubas – can rival this for dramatic effect.
But the lovers’ sheer intensity and Dornhelm’s cinematic vision, expanded in the accompanying documentary, make this one of the finest opera films ever – unmissable. Michael Scott Rohan