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Theater/Opera Review (LA): La Bohème by Puccini at the LA Opera

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La Bohème is known as the most popular opera in the world. Every opera company has a production it keeps ready to revive and occasionally mounts or brings in a new one. The Los Angeles Opera is now reviving its wonderful production, staged originally by the famed film director Herbert Ross. Evidence of the director’s film background is everywhere in his staging and in the sumptuous set by Gerard Howland.

The scenes are directed to emphasize the characters’ relationships, but Ross also moves the action around – inside, outside, on the stairs, even to indoor chambers for the courtyard scene. The only scene that didn’t work for me was the one in front of the curtain before they all go into Café Momus. It just looked crowded. Also, the long pauses during set changes made me wish our stage were more flexible, like the Met’s in New York.

Singing is what La Bohème is all about, and I thoroughly enjoyed the two young singers making their LA Opera debuts. Mimi was sung by the lovely Maija Kovalevska. Her voice was matched in sensitivity and beauty by the Italian tenor Massimo Giordano, whose renditions of many of the famous arias brought tears to my eyes.

The response seemed a bit tepid from the LA audience, which is accustomed to superstars in the roles; the last time, it was the super-couple Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. And the production is not as glorious as the Baz Lurhmann staging at the Ahmanson a few years back.

But suddenly, at the end of the new revival, the audience rose to its feet with a roar. Apparently they, like me, had been so moved by the music that a loud outburst had seemed inappropriate. Because of the audience’s restraint, we got to hear the piece as a whole rather than as a series of arias and bravos.

The leads were ably supported by Luca Salsi as Marcello, Oren Gradus as Colline, and a local singer, Brian Leerhuber, whose voice I found particularly pleasing. Laquita Mitchell sang Musetta. She was rather restrained in the part but brought a nice dignity to the usually coquettish role. Hermut Haenchen conducted.

La Bohème plays in repertory with Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the LA Opera through December 16, with two casts alternating as the young bohemians. (213) 972-7219

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About Robert Machray

  • I couldn’t disagree with you more! This opera shares the same demand of all forms of entertainment, a basic level of belief and understanding by the audience in what the creator is trying to say in the story he or she is recounting, (within the style of the piece, whether opera, play, film, dance, or even standup.)

    To these eyes, filmmaker Herbert Ross’s production, which I saw last night (Saturday, 12/1), seems to me to owe more to the inspiration of Disney than the intention of author Giacomo Puccini, and might help explain the lukewarm reception.

    This multi-million dollar effort undercuts itself when the curtain goes up by designing Rodolfo’s 1890 Parisian garret home as an upper duplex in a corner of a huge set whose main purpose seems to be to create the feeling of an impending Indiana Jones thriller, while overhead banal translations of Italian lyrics are shown as in TV close-captions. Cinematic reality has no place in an opera where sung soaring emotion is all. The challenge for the producers is to make us believe visually in the truth of the sung dialogue. The almost comic final result was that the producers were stuck with having us accept that Mimi would meet her tragic end center stage, placed in a wicker lounger, in an empty street, by her mourning friends. This theme park setting became the story, (and then the parade was over.) But they were game actors, though, who have fine voices.

    However, I felt that Rodolfo was wrongly played as a young fun-loving would-be poet, who was merely trying to put the make on Mimi, who came across as an opportunist willing to flirt a bit (notice, I take their voice quality for granted here, but then I am a play director, hopefully more than a traffic cop). We should see that Rodolfo is actually a somewhat older failed and failing deep-thinking poet, (willing to burn his manuscripts in the fireplace for warmth), and as such looked up to for leadership by his friends, a painter, a student philosopher, and a musician, who all share the same state of poverty. Only when his character and their relationships have been firmly established can they leave for a night on the town, leaving the delayed Rodolpho alone to answer a knock on the door from a fragile neighbor who needs a light for her candle. When we can believe that he can be so quickly and completely overcome with an emotional connection with this chance meeting with Mimi – requiring that the two of them become overnight lifelong lovers – can they be allowed to leave to join his friends for a night of carousing. They are both very needy people, spiritually in tune with each other. Yes, a difficult task, given the brevity of the real-time factor. Consequently, there was no emotional payoff at the end. To think that the arias and music and the settings and the costumes will do it for you is lazy and wrong thinking.

    To finish the story without the audience in tears is proof of failure, in my book. So for me, back to my favorite Pavarotti recordings, I’m afraid, and the fading memory of a night at the Met back in the seventies.

    Addendum: Wow, I just looked in the program at the CV of the designer. Gerard Howland founded a corporation that creates “imaginative visual designs and entertainment concepts for clients such as Disney, Universal Studios, Fox Studios, General Motors, Coca Cola and Old Navy”. Was this set design part of their marketing methods?