Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is as popular and reliable a seat-filler as you can get in opera. In Southern California alone, it has been programmed by both the Pacific Symphony and Los Angeles Opera within weeks of each other this spring. It shows up so often that opera-going veterans see La Bohème on the calendar and grumble and moan something like, “Ugh, not again,” the way the rest of the world wanted to throw something at speakers after the umpteenth rendition of “Pumped Up Kicks” polluted every clean parcel of broadcast airspace last summer.
One could therefore be easily lulled into a “been there, done that” attitude when this warhorse showed up on LA Opera’s season. That attitude may have been exacerbated with the knowledge that this is the sixth time the same production is being used by the company, and that the company’s Music Director isn’t going to be in the pit.
If that’s the way you feel, fight it and avoid the temptation to skip this production. If Wednesday night’s preview (see below*) is indicative of the run, there is everything to like about this Bohème: a beautiful production, staged intelligently, and populated by a talented young cast.
Start with Herbert Ross’s legendary production. Its repeated use is understandable given how well-designed and richly detailed it is (how can you not appreciate the accurate growth of the Eiffel Tower between December and April), and the company’s carpenters and painters have ensured that it still looks fresh. In his LA Opera debut, Gregory A. Fortner created a light-hearted production, choosing not to over-emphasize the pathos. In fact, his willingness to gently push comedic aspects throughout the opera makes the evolution of Mimi & Rofolfo’s love-story feel tragically genuine.
Playing the doomed lovers are Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello, the latest up-and-coming young stars that LA Opera has presented. The couple, married in real-life, both have received the prestigious Richard Tucker award, and the vocal chops they both displayed were considerable. Ms. Pérez has a smooth soprano that she controls with grace and charm, always sounding beautiful and effortless, even when singing from her back. Mr. Costello displayed a strong voice of his own, bold yet tender in “Che gelida manina.” Their joint rendition of “O soave fanciulla” could not have been more poignant, and their chemistry throughout was evident. Let’s hope they come back more often than other recent LA Opera “discoveries” (like, say, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón)
The rest of the bohemian cast matched them near-perfectly. Artur Ruciński was a solid Marcello, with Janai Brugger as his teasingly petulant Musetta — her gloriously sung “Quando m’en vo” showing why she was a recent winner of the Met Opera National Council Auditions. Robert Pomakov gave Colline’s lament to his favorite coat emotional and vocal weight. Museop Kim sounded fine, but played Schaunard a bit stiff, and he was the only one to just stand and sing instead of looking like a singing actor.
Patrick Summers makes his first appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and he kept things well-balanced. Singers were never overpowered by the musicians from the pit, while letting the orchestra shine when the situation called for it, most notably the Act IV climax. The LA Opera orchestra responded well, playing with a warm and lush sound throughout the night.
Random other thoughts:
- *Given that this was the final dress rehearsal for the actual production run, all the usual caveats applied (changes may still be made before opening night, singers may not be singing full voice, etc). Except for some minor awkwardness and indecision during curtain call, it looked and sounded like a regular performance.
- Ben Bliss, the production’s Parpignol, was a favorite of the Tweet Seat ladies — because of his amazing voice, of course.
Los Angeles Opera: May 12 – June 2, 2012; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
by Giacomo Puccini
libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger
|Musetta (May 12, 20, 23)||Janai Brugger+|
|Musetta (May 26, 31; June 2)||Valentina Fleer+|
|Director||Gregory A. Fortner*|
|Set Designer||Gerard Howland|
|Costume Designer||Peter J. Hall|
|Lighting Designer||Daniel Ordower|
|Assoc. Conductor & Chorus Master|
|* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program member
Photo credits: Robert Millard for LA Opera