The opera “La Boheme” by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Gicosa is one of the most famous and produced operas in the world since its debut on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. The story is based on a novel “Scènes de la vie de bohème” by French writer Henri Murger which tells the story of young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter section of Paris in the 1840’s. The opera spawned a silent film version in 1926 starring Lillian Gish & John Gilbert, a Broadway Musical “Rent” in 1996 and its music has appeared in countless commercials and films such as “Moonstruck” (1987) starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.
Pacific Opera Project (POP) has brought back their 2012 edgy and irreverent production of “La Boheme” which is set in modern day Los Angeles and dubbed “The Hipsters”, taking its inspiration from this “sub-culture of individuals in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, and appreciation of art, creativity, intelligent and witty banter.”
The first act takes place in a run-down building where two friends, screenwriter Rudofo (tenor James Callon) and graphic designer Marcello (baritone Ryan Thorn) are trying to heat the small upstairs apartment they share with a portable BBQ using paper from some old scripts. They are joined by their friends, Collide (bass-baritone Keith Colclough) a PhD in English Literature major and Schaunard (baritone E. Scott Levin) a Rock musician who has just landed a paid gig. Enter landlord Benoit (bass-baritone Robert Norman) who has come to collect the rent but ends up gets distracted with an offer to drink some wine with the young men. He is soon out the door drunk and without the rent payment. All of the friends agree to celebrate Schaunard’s good fortune by heading out to a nearby café except for Rodolfo who remains in order to finish a script. Soon after they leave he gets interrupted by a knock on the door from his fashion designer neighbor Mimi (Daria Somers) whose apartment has lost electric power.
I had the luck to review POP’s production of the opera “Tosca” a few months ago where Ms. Somers played the tempestuous and strong willed Floria Tosca with great vocal strength and character. Even though the role of Mimi is a total reverse of character, Somers’ vocal power and strong acting abilities serve her well again in making this another signature role, especially with her lovely pianissimos. Rudolfo as played by Callo is a shy “nerd”who empathizes with the struggling Mimi by offering some wine and help finding a key that she seems to have dropped at the apartment while visiting. They are soon drawn to each other as they sing one of the most famous duets in opera “O soave fanciulla” (Oh lovely girl) as they decide to join the others at the café. While Callo possesses a precise and lyrical tenor voice with a purity that is enviable, I wish he would have shown a bit more strength and confidence in this first act as he did on the others.
When transported to Café Momus for Act II, the piano that was hidden behind the frosted window in the first has moved front stage as part of this second scene. While this production is accompanied by piano only (played admirably by music director Stephen Karr), the void of other instrument is balance by the emphasis on the voices and acting of the cast members as well as the expert playing of Mr. Karr.
Most of the cast for this “Boheme” comes from previous POP productions and there are reasons why these singers were chosen. As Marcello, Ryan Thorne brings his huge voice and body (he is very tall) as well as charm that he laid (pun intended) in POP’s production of “La Calisto”, which was the first opera I attended by this very creative company headed by the talented director/producer/set designer Josh Shaw. As Schaunard, E. Scott Levin brings his wonderful expressive voice, mannerism and timing to another signature comedic role which he is so well known for, while the character of the level headed and big hearted Collide is played and sung admirably by Keith Colclough. As Marcello’s ex-girlfriend Musetta (Katherine Gianquinto) is a sexy, manipulative promoter and sometimes model hiding a big heart. In another famous aria, “Musetta’s waltz: Quando me’n vo’ (When I go along”) Gianquinto gives us a memorable performance in voice and character as she plays the seductress to both Thorne and her sugar daddy Alcidoro (baritone Robert Norman) while telling everyone how popular she is.
As act III rolls around, we find that Mimi and Rudolfo have split up and he has come to stay with Marcello and Musetta who are now living together in Big Bear. While Marcello paints the back of the building they live, Mimi appears and tells him how Rudolfo’s jealousy has caused their rift. She quickly hides behind a wall when Rudolfo steppes out to tell his friend what has happened and how he fears that Mimi is dying due to her worsening cough. When she reveals herself to him the couple begins to reminisce and we hear one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera, “Donde lieta uscì” (From here she happily left) in the very capable vocals of Daria Somers who at the same time conveys a delicate state of health as the couple agree to stay together till the spring. On the other hand Musetta and Marcello begin to bicker and part, opposite to what the other couple has just done.
Much of the enjoyment of a POP production comes from the irreverent sub-title translation, sense of humor in the acting as well as the outstanding direction and use of the entire venue by director Josh Shaw to convey a fuller context for the story. By adding the unusual cabaret style table seating accompanied by wine and a plate of cold cuts, cheese and grapes, even a tragic opera like “La Boheme” can leave the audience with a smile on their face. As an old Latino/Hispanic saying goes, this production is “Bueno, Bonito y Barato” (Great, Beautiful & Affordable)!