Sonya Yoncheva in 'La Bohème'
Sonya Yoncheva in 'La Bohème'

Generally speaking, space opera has nothing to do with opera in the conventional sense. But should it? German stage director Claus Guth has merged the genre made popular by Isaac Asimov with the actual opera thing, placing his singers on a defective spacecraft, borrowing liberally along the way from Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kubrick’s 2001, and various Lars von Trier moments.

Quite what this has to do with Puccini’s La Bohème is anybody’s guess. Certainly the opening-night audience was unconvinced, heckling loudly and frequently in the course of the performance, and greeting the director and his team at their curtain-calls with storms of boos.

Puccini’s operas seldom take well to abstraction, since the composer engraved every detail of what should happen into the score so specifically that there was little wiggle room left. Despite the starship and the alien planet, despite the idea of telling the story as a hallucination of the principal characters, Guth’s play-within-a-play falls helplessly back on the old tropes, because what else can you do?

Two things must be conceded to Guth and his team. First, it looks magnificent — from the sweeping planetary vistas to the glittering black get-up of the dream-figure Parisians. Second, Guth knows how to move people around a stage, how to guide his singers, how to craft his vision. The fact that it all ends up feeling somehow ridiculous is not a flaw in the way that the whole thing is made.

It’s certainly not let down by the music-making. Gustavo Dudamel conducts with sensitivity and care, paying attention to his singers, keeping his instrumentalists focused and committed. His is an honest, well-considered Bohème. Sonya Yoncheva is a dream of a Mimì; she simply opens her mouth and sings, and in that moment, nothing else matters. Aida Garifullina makes a feisty Musetta. As Rodolfo, Atalla Ayan spends most of the evening crammed into a bulky space suit, but still manages scorching intensity; the rest of the cast is strong.

Of course, there is little new on our small planet. Doris Dörrie sent opera into space with her 2005 Planet of the Apes version of Rigoletto for the Bavarian State Opera. That was roundly booed, too. And yes, numerous operas throughout history have been set at least partly on the Moon.

But Guth’s idea of making us hear Puccini’s music afresh by underscoring it with new, different images crashes and burns, like his imaginary spacecraft. Open the pod bay doors, please, Hal.

★★☆☆☆

To December 31, operadeparis.fr

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