By C.B. Adams
It is tempting to explore the modern cultural significance of Puccini’s La Bohéme. Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge both owe a debt of gratitude to Puccini’s enduring, powerful, story of callow youths in the full throes of love, lust and loss. Echoes of it are recognizable in films like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, to say nothing of Terms of Endearment, NBC’s Friends or even The Dandy Warhol’s “Bohemian Like You.”
But Puccini’s 1845 bohemian rhapsody is firmly ensconced in the operatic canon, so that discussion would merely detract from Union Avenue Opera’s current production (its third in its 25-year history) of La Bohéme. So, is UAO up to the challenge of this masterwork? If all you seek is a thumbs up or down recommendation, then the answer is a resounding “Yes” and read no further.
But for a few more details, know that UAO’s production checks all the right boxes for a successful run. Under the stage direction of Mark Freiman, cast, crew and musicians provide a confident, fresh and energetic La Bohéme that should delight a first-time operagoer as well as a more seasoned aficionado. Freiman moves the sometimes large cast, including an ensemble of raucous children, around the stage with an adroit fluidity that never feels stagey. Kudos to children’s chorus master, Alice Nelson, for ably herding the youngsters projecting the exuberance of Muny Kids.
Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber boldly uses UAO’s modest stage with a looming diagonal wall that is cleverly transformed from act to act. This wall serves as a garret window overlooking a projection of the Paris skyline in Act 1, to the awninged front of Café Momus (hello, Central Perk) in Act 2, to a shuttered tavern entrance in Act 3, and finally back to the first set in Act 4. Such scene-changing was impressive to see, but this also meant an extra intermission to accomplish the changes – a minor quibble.
La Bohéme is not an opera filled with opportunities for special effects; those pyrotechnics are mostly left to the arias and duets. Yet, the chill in Act 3 is made ever more palpable with a gentle, realistic snowfall. After a quick glance upward to “see how it’s done,” it’s easy to re-suspend one’s disbelief.
Huber’s choice of lighting is interesting. Act 1’s chilly garret is bathed in a warm, nostalgic, sepia light (Tuscan sunset, anyone?) in contrast to the bone-chilling ambient temperature endured by the friends Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline, Schnaunard, Benoit and, later, Mimi. This contrast avoids the scene from becoming too Dickensian in its harsh poverty. Afterall, the poet Rodolfo resorts to burning his manuscript to provide a meager warmth.
Just as with films, music supports the moods and actions of the production and enhances the performance without calling attention to itself. From the pit, conductor Elizabeth Hastings leads the small orchestra (including harp by Megan Stout) to reach the fullness of the score with a deceptively small cadre of musicians. Good things sometimes do indeed come in small packages.
Regardless of how much stage time the cast’s 10 members had, each was fully in command of his or her part – in fine voice and expressing a relaxed chemistry. The entire ensemble, and especially the main cast, are excellently clad in period costumes that beautifully display costume designer Teresa Doggett’s keen eye for details and distinguishing characteristics, such as Mimi’s bonnet and deathbed muff. There are no “wardrobe malfunctions” in this successful production, only costumes that contribute flawlessly to the personality of each character, including the exemplary E. Scott Levin as Benoit, the landlord, who shines in Act I.
The heartbeat – and heartbreak – of La Bohéme relies on its central characters, played in this production by the tenor Jesse Donner as Rodolfo and soprano Yulia Lysenko (making her UAO stage debut) as Mimi. Matching male and female performance vocals – during duets as well as arias – is always a challenge, but the talents of Donner and Lysenko intertwine beautifully. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born could only dream of such an effective, equitable pairing.
Puccini’s music with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa balances the relationship of Mimi and Rodolfo with their friends and fellow starving artists. Andrew Wannigman as Marcello is delightful as the painter whose eyes are just as expressive as his voice. As the singer Musetta, Cree Carrico (making her UAO debut) plays Marcello’s love interest with a broadly appealing, tarty flirtatiousness.
Before Mimi enters Act 1, the bro-ish camaraderie is captured with earnest high energy as Isaiah Musik-Ayala (making his UAO debut) as Colline, a philosopher, and Nicholas Ward as Schaunard, a musician, join Donner and Wannigman in the spartan garret. This production’s “deep bench” of talent extends even to the relatively small part of Parpignol, a toy vendor. As played by Dale Obermark (making his UAO debut) Parpignol is memorable, charming and a highlight of Act 2.
Good opera like all great art is worthy of repeated attention. La Bohéme may be an operatic chestnut, but UAO’s interpretation of this classic lives up to the strong material and will surely withstand the test of time as one of this company’s most noteworthy productions.
Union Avenue Opera presents “La Boheme” July 26, 27 and Aug. 2, 3 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org.