La Bohème ranks as the third most popular opera in the current modern repertory, behind only Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen. Perhaps more so than its brethren, La Bohème has worked its way popular culture more often than other operas. Whether its on the Broadway stage (Jonathan Larsen’s Rent), Film (Moonstruck and Moulin Rouge) or television (The Simpsons of all things) Puccini’s tragedy has resonated with audiences for the better part of 118 years.
Based upon a collection of stories, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, by Henri Murger La Bohème is at its heart a simple love story of Rodulfo, the struggling writer, and Mimi, the consumptive flower girl.
Much like Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, La Bohème is a small cast. Aside from a few townspeople in Acts two and three, the opera is seven characters. This lends an intimacy that is sometimes lacking in larger operas. It’s this intimacy that holds the heart of La Bohème. In addition to the technical demands of singing, the singer must also act and develop a genuine character and that character must come through in voice and action.
At the opening of the opera, the first characters we meet are a painter, Marcello ( Luis Ledesma) and a writer, Rodolfo ( Dimitri Pittas). There was an obvious rapport with these characters, they had obviously lived together a long while and were very good friends, joining this group are the other roommates Colline (Evan Boyer) and the avian assassin/musician Schaunard (Tobias Greenhalgh). These four make a rowdy quartet and Greenhalgh’s retelling of his encounter with a noisy parrot, an early highlight.
After most of the men leave for the evening, Mimi (Keri Alkema) arrives asking for assistance lighting her candle. What follows are two of the four signature arias in the opera. First is Che Galida Manina sung by Rodolfo. This is Rodolfo’s one big aria, and it falls within the first twenty minutes of the opera. Pittas handles the aria’s fairly high tessatura quite well, although his fairly light voice sometimes got lost in the orchestra. Mimi counters with her own introduction and life story in Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi. This is Mimi’s first of two major arias and for the most part she is spot on. Perhaps the only criticism is there didn’t seem to be much of a spark between Rudolfo and Mimi, of course, it is that connection that propels the rest of the opera forward.
Act two, takes place a little while later in the cafe down the street. This scene an upbeat affair with lots of children and townspeople, full of energy and life. This is the perfect segue into Musetta’s (Ellie Dehn) grand entrance. Musetta’s only aria Quando m’en vo – Musetta’s Waltz has all the makings of a show stopper, and Dehn sells it. Not only does she look amazing in a stunning satin dress she has an outstanding soprano voice. Dehn captures the essence that is Musetta, that of a very smart social climber.
Love rarely ends well in in opera, and La Bohème is no exception. Mimi is suffering from consumption and after Rodolfo pushes her away, then she pushes him away they eventually find themselves in act four where they sing their final duet together, Sono andati. While both Pittas and Alkema are fine singers and and separately they are quite convincing, together they just never quite hit the mark, vocally and musically they were solid, but as characters they never quite connected.
La Bohème was expertly directed by Fenion Lamb. Making use of almost every inch of the Peter Dean Beck’s (Arizona Opera) gorgeous scenery, Lamb created some beautiful pictures and vignettes that helped to tell the story as much as the music. Perhaps the one (minor) qualm was the decision to combine the opera into two acts. While this seems to be a current convention, I for one like the extra intermissions, and a “pause” just tends to come across as awkward.
The orchestra was under the very deft direction of Daniele Callegari. Callegari watches his singers. He watches his singers a lot. Many an opera has been hampered by a conductor that plows forward leaving his soprano to catch up. Not Callegari, he follows and guides and makes the opera the better for it.
This was my first time attending the Palm Beach Opera, and it was a very good experience. Overall La Bohème was a very enjoyable evening. I had the pleasure of talking with several patrons that were seated around me, and surprisingly they were all first time opera goers. This is a testament to PBO’s outreach and social media initiatives. They, by the way, loved the performance and are making plans to see Enemies, A Love Story in February.