The first notes you hear in this 2012 Den Norske Opera production of Puccini's La Bohème are the beeps of a heart monitor on a life support system that Mimi lies attached to in a hospital bed. The beeps take that familiar flatline tone as Mimi breathes her last and doctors rush in to the opening chords of the score proper in a vain attempt to resuscitate her, while Rodolfo looks on aghast, completely lost in his own grief. This evidently isn't a traditional way to start La Bohème, but it is very much a typical Stefan Herheim touch where the standard linear approach is just not an option. As a director, Herheim is clearly interested in getting into the minds of characters whose actions and motivations we can take for granted from over-familiarity, and La Bohème is a very familiar opera. Not here it isn't.
Having established that Mimi dies - which, let's face it, even if you weren't familiar with the opera, her fate is signalled clearly enough by Puccini right from the moment she totters and stumbles into Rodolfo's garret, often with a hefty tubercular cough for good measure - Herheim is more interested in the impact her death has on Rodolfo after the opera ends, considering the times and the troubles they have shared together. His grief played out in flashback then - the hospital ward opening up to a more traditional view of the past in Rodolfo's Parisian garret - the past and the present coexist for Rodolfo, who has no means of pulling them together. When he poses the question 'Qui sono?' to himself here in Act I then, it takes on an entirely different meaning, one that involves real soul-searching, as well as a certain existential dilemma. Compressing and overlapping time in this way simultaneously concentrates all the joy and happiness of that fleeting moment of beauty, while forcing one to consider how brief and vulnerable are the flames of love on those candles that are so soon to burn out. It's indescribably sad. I'm usually a wreck by the end of La Bohème, but I was shattered already by the end of the first act here.
Evidently however, the absurd modern twists on an otherwise faithful staging can be a little off-putting or will be simply intolerable to some viewers. Already in the first act, Mimi collapses, her wig is removed to reveal a bald head that bears the signs of chemotherapy (this Mimi is dying from the rather more contemporary killer of cancer rather than the traditional old-fashioned disease of tuberculosis), and she is ushered back into that modern hospital bed that looms at the corner of Rodolfo's consciousness. The shifting of the off-kilter sets from one 'reality' to the next - incredibly well designed to transform so smoothly - have an unsettling effect not only on Rodolfo but on the viewer also, leaving them unsure at times about what exactly is going on, and why the familiar figures in the work don't behave in character in the way that we expect. Rodolfo here is so impassioned that you get the impression he believes he could bring Mimi's ghost back to life by the end of the opera. Wouldn't that be something? But no, Herheim stays faithful to the intentions of the work. "Per richiamarla in vita non basta amore" - "Love alone will not suffice to bring her back to life", he says in Act III. It's all there in the libretto if you want to look for it
Surprisingly, it's all there in the score too. If you consider that Puccini's writing here can be extremely manipulative and has a tendency towards heavy pathos, sentimentality and schmaltz, Herheim's staging forces you to listen to the music in a different context, and the effect is phenomenal. The performance of the work itself is overall also very good, the added dramatic twists only intensifying their impassioned delivery. More so Rodolfo than Mimi, it has to be said, Diego Torre singing the role superbly, with consideration for the different nuances of meaning applied to his character. By focussing the attention on Rodolfo's state of mind and resigning Mimi to little more than a ghost however, the consequence is that it weakens Marita Sølberg's contribution to the work, but she sings it well in the context. The other characters are also reduced to relatively minor roles, but even if it loses some of the contrasting elements of the nature of relationships that is brought out by the Marcello and Musetta pairing (adequately sung by Vasilij Ladjuk and Jennifer Rowley), the tightening of the focus isn't necessarily a bad thing in this work either. Svein Erik Sagbråten's recurring Death-like presence as the landlord Benoit, Parpignol, Alcindoro and a Toll gate keeper could also be seen as bringing more of a consistency to the colourful but marginal episodes of the work.
On Blu-ray, the production looks and sounds as good as you would expect from a recent HD recording. The singing sounds a little echoing in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, but I found that the stereo track sounded much clearer through headphones. The recording and mixing of the orchestra however is gorgeous, with lovely tone and detail in the orchestration. It's a good account of the work - Eivind Gullberg Jensen directing the opera for the first time - attuned to the performances and only slightly adjusted in one or two places for the tempo and tone to match the production. There are a few very short interviews on the disc (around a minute each) with the director, conductor and cast, done backstage in the intervals presumably during a television broadcast of the live performance. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.