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BWW Reviews: Opera Theatre of St. Louis delights with 'La boheme'

Puccini's La bohème! That beloved world of Paris in the 1830's, of the destitute but merry "Bohemian" life of artists--and of the poor, beautiful, frail, doomed Mimi. It is Puccini's world of utterly irresistible melody, and it is his most popular opera.

La bohème is a wonderfully suitable choice to open the forty-first festival season of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. In these past forty years OTSL has become a true international destination for opera lovers. It consistently offers productions of the very highest calibre: productions of classics and moderns; of old favorites whose melodies have long been deep in our hearts as well as newly-commissioned works; of the traditional as well as the avante garde. Everything is sung in English (with projected supertitles).

A large crowd gathered early on the beautiful lawn, wearing everything from elegant-casual to elegant-elegant. The weather was as glorious and sweet as a Puccini melody-perfect for a picnic supper. Many of these hundreds of happy, expectant people were coming to renew old and treasured friendships--with Opera Theatre of St. Louis and with La bohème. Some first-timers were soon to be impressed and delighted with what OTSL has to offer. It was a truly festive beginning to this festival season. And this is a gorgeous production.

La bohème premiered in 1896. It has been so popular ever since that over the years it's been adapted into seven movies, a musical and, of course, the rock opera Rent. Here, though, we're dealing with the real McCoy! You know the story: in Paris four room-mates share a wretched garret--Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a philosopher. They've barely a sou amongst them, but they maintain a merry camaraderie. They're freezing; they can't even afford firewood. While the others set off to a restaurant Rodolfo stays to finish an article-then hears a knock at the door. He opens it-and meets the love of his life. Mimi enters, a beautiful, frail impoverished seamstress. She's come to beg a light for her candle but finds the light of her life. She's so sweet, so good-but her gentle cough confirms that she suffers that most fashionable of all afflictions for 19th century heroines-consumption. Tuberculosis.

Later at the restaurant we meet the most vivid character of all: Marcello's old lover Musetta. She's a beautiful, sexy coquette--a woman who loves men and all the things they can buy for her. And she's a helluva tease. She's here with her current "sugar daddy," but he is soon dispensed with and she spends a merry night with her old friends.

Now at this point Puccini's librettists had written a scene wherein Musetta's patron throws her out of her apartment. Outside, amidst all her evicted furniture, her friends decide to throw a party. Mimi (in a gown that Musetta has given her) is introduced to a viscount-and leaves with him. It's a shame that Puccini chose not to use this; it would have been a terrific scene. But it would have lengthened the opera, which now stands at a taut two hours stage time.

In any event jealousy plagues Rodolfo, and this torments Mimi. The two troubled lovers seem just unable to live together. They vow, however, to remain together "until spring."

But Act IV brings a dreadful spring to the garret. Our lovers have parted and Mimi has been seen "in a carriage dressed like a queen." Suddenly Musetta rushes in with the dying Mimi who is returning to her true love. The rest is pathos as Mimi and Rodolfo express their love one final time and Mimi departs this world.

CURTAIN.

Thunderous applause!

All the principals are outstanding talents. Andrew Haji sings Rodolfo with a smooth and pure tenor. His is perhaps not the most powerful voice on stage, but he reaches those soaring high notes with a perfectly effortless ease. Holding Mimi's tiny frozen hand Haji sings a flawless and heartfelt "Che gelita manina."

Mimi is sung by the lovely Hai Ji Chang. Such a powerful, beautiful voice resides in that small frame! Her introduction of herself ("Yes, I'm called Mimi") is the first of many very lovely musical moments. I thought I noticed a slight eccentric shadow to certain of her vowels, but overall it is a very fine performance.

Baritone Anthony Clark Evans gives a very strong performance as Marcello-not only musically, but as an actor. Real fire flashes in his tempestuous relationship with Musetta.

And Musetta! Lauren Michelle brings energy, bright movement, sexiness and a beautiful voice to this role. She triumphs in Musetta's show-stopping waltz-tempo aria in Act II, where she flaunts her power over so many men.

Bass Bradley Smoak does lovely work as Colline-especially in his mournful romantic aria to his old coat as he prepares to take it to the pawn shop. And he looks every inch a philosopher.

Sean Michael Plumb, as Schaunard, the musician, shows the most powerful voice of all four friends. It's clear and true, and Plumb has exceptionally fine diction.

Thomas Hammons is excellent as both the grumpy landlord and the pompous sugar-daddy, and Eric Ferring really shines in the bright vignette role of Parpignol, the toy vendor.

There is so much grandly beautiful music in this show-tender and loving, raucous and merry. There's a vast chorus of some fifty people in Act II. There's even a marching brass band that surprises us with a trip right across the center aisle. And there's that ravishing, utterly gorgeous ending to Musetta's waltz. There's a strange irony to this-a stunning blend of lovers' clichéd bickering, a silly joke with a shoe that Musetta has played on her patron, and a sheer, magnificent, glorious musical climax. All the principals are singing their very hearts and souls out. It will sweep you away!

Conductor Emanuele Andrizzi draws beauty and fine balance from his orchestra and singers, and stage director Ron Daniels manages his (sometimes huge) cast artfully, despite some odd limitations imposed by the set.

You will be struck by the beauty of the background. It's a vast, intricate wrought-iron tracery--very like those beautiful old Gothic train stations of the Belle Epoque. We could be looking at the Gare St. Lazare. In one scene there is a beautiful and convincing snowfall filling the night sky beyond all that lovely ironwork. (OK, we must be in the Gare du Nord.)

Unfortunately designer Ricardo Hernandez gives almost a literal train platform stretching all across the rear. Actors can enter on it, then step down into the main playing area. But in Act II that huge chorus sometimes is constricted to moving (like a crowd in a station) linearly along that long narrow space.

Another curiosity appears at the opening of Acts II (the restaurant) and III (a street scene). A large rectangular projection screen descends from the flies, an appropriate antique Parisian photograph is projected onto it, and then the screen disappears upwards. This minor technological intrusion is unnecessary and distracting.

But my greatest disagreement with the design of this Bohème is with the costuming, by Emily Rebholz. Her costumes come not from the 1830's but from, I would guess, the early 1930's. It's a concept I just don't get. There are no flowing skirts, there's nary a flourishing petticoat and some of the women's clothing verges on the frumpy. Such costumes have none of the Romance that is so essential to Bohème and that we associate with 1830's Paris.

There's even a very American Santa Clause--red suit, cap and all--who is so totally out of place. And (shades of Starlight Express) a time or two we have street buskers on roller-skates! I delighted in OTSL's use of a roller-skater in their very stylized Japanese pop-culture Mikado nine years ago. But in La bohème???

For most of my long lifetime directors have been "re-imagining" shows or simply transposing them into other times or places. They feel that this is necessary in order to make the show "relevant" to today's audiences, or because they think that audiences would be bored with the original setting--or (oftentimes, I think) they do it simply to mark their territory. A German director once set Bohème in 1930 Berlin. An Australian director set it in 1957--because "the socio-economic situation in 1957 was identical to that in Paris in 1830." That might be meaningful if Bohème were a tract about socio-economic problems--housing for the poor, say. It is not. It is pure, undiluted sentimental Romance.

On a deeper note: To wrench an old story out of its temporal home and modernize it is to help us lose contact with details of history. We moderns vitally need more understanding and insight into our history. We need to be familiar with it and thereby learn from it. So many of us today feel that if a character in a story doesn't act in accordance with the social dictates fashionable in the last fifteen minutes then that character is just wrong and must be a bad person. To be intimately familiar with times other than our own gives us multiple perspectives on human life; it's very like the blessing we get from binocular vision: it is only with two images that we gain a sense of depth. To suggest that everything meaningful happens in our own moment of history precludes that blessing.

I note that director Daniels has worked with set-designer Hernandez and costumer Rebholz before at OTSL (costumes in Il Tabarro/Paliacci; both sets and costumes in Sweeney Todd). So they are a close team. All three will soon collaborate again on Don Giovanni at the Santa Fe Opera. Don Giovanni already has a bit of surrealism around the edges, so some new concept might fit Giovanni more comfortably than it does a sweet old shoe like La bohème.

But these problems with design and concept are mere quibbles in light of the simply gorgeous vocal and musical wonders of this show. Any opera lover will supremely enjoy this splendid production of La bohème at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. It plays through June 25.

Other operas soon to appear this season are:

Verdi's Macbeth opening May 28
Strauss' Ariadne on Naxos opening June 5
Perla's Shalimar the Clown opening June 11
(This is a world premiere and is based on the book by Salman Rushdie.)

For specific dates visit opera-stl.org

(Photos are by Ken Howard.)


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From This Author Steve Callahan