Puccini: La bohème

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Puccini
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)

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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.

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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