BLO's "Boheme": Paying the Rent

James Maddalena in BLO's "La Boheme"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

“It's all about the music with this one”, as the program notes for Boston Lyric Opera's current production of Giacomo Puccini's ageless tale of star-struck lovers, “La Boheme”. As the title indicates, it was the story of a group of Bohemians in 1830's Paris. This version, updated to1968 during the Parisian student revolution, depending on one's taste, is either an enhancement or a distraction from the central love story (and more about this later). The music is intact and as sublime as ever. As Directed by Rosetta Cuchi and Conducted by BLO Music Director David Angus, this is easily one of BLO's most memorably sung offerings. It's an extraordinary cast which embodies this enduring love story.
It remains a simple story that has withstood the test of time. A near-starving poet, Rodolfo (tenor Jesus Garcia) and a painter, Marcello (Baritone Jonathan Beyer), along with their friends, the philosopher Colline (Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and the musician Schaunard (Baritone Andrew Garland), are about to leave for the Cafe Momus, to celebrate Christmas. They're delayed by the arrival of their landlord Benoit (Baritone James Maddalena) who's looking for his rent. They put him off and again start to leave. Staying behind briefly, Rodolfo meets his neighbor, the tubercular seamstress Mimi (Soprano Kelly Kaduce). They fall instantly in love (this is Paris, after all). At the Cafe they all congregate, including Marcello's old flame Musetta (Soprano Emily Birsan), who arrives with her new rich beau, Alcindoro (Maddalena again). Musetta dumps the new boyfrend for Marcello again. Weeks later, Mimi bemoans Rodolfo's jealousy. Rodolfo wants them to separate because he fears for Mimi's health in his destitute condition. They swear to remain together until spring. Later, having separated from their girlfriends, Rodolfo and Marcello express how lonely they are. Musetta arrives with Mimi, who is now mortally ill. Musetta runs off with Marcello to sell his coat to buy food and medicine, leaving Rodolfo and Mimi alone to relive their formerly happy days. Soon after the others return, Mimi dies, and Rodolfo is heartbroken.

In a small but potent ensemble, Garcia first stands out, not only for his powerful voice but also for his engaging acting. It's easy to see how he shared a Tony Award for the 2002 production on Broadway. Kaduce becomes his match when given the opportunity to sing and emote more fully in Act Two, especially in her last scene. Beyer, Cedel, and Garland all possess fine vocal chops as well, as does local favorite Maddalena. Birsan delivers in her Act I aria, this opera's most popular one (made permanently unforgettable in a pop song by Della Reese). The chorus, under Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander, doesn't disappoint. It's a joy to hear.

But not necessarily to see. While the concept of placing the story in mid-twentieth century Paris, with its atmosphere of student unrest, free thinking, free love and unencumbered creativity, is a bold one, it lends little to the central story (and pales in comparison with that other updated version, the rock musical “Rent”, which of course ditched all that glorious Puccini music). The mid-nineteenth century bohemian class was clearly in opposition to its well-to-do bourgeoisie class, but that backdrop worked well for the story of these struggling artists. The updating of the context with its revolutionary ideas of sexual liberation, experimention with drugs and burning idealism, its visual symbols of Che, Godard and such, while novel, simply doesn't work. It's rather like a schizoid dream (or nightmare) without a center. The technical contributions, while all expert, adhere to this overall concept, in the Set Design by John Conklin (including the scene of a checkpoint becoming a monochromatic barricade, as though designed by Louise Nevelson for a production of “Les Miserables”), Costume Design by Nancy Leary, Lighting Design by D.M.Wood, and Projection and Sound Design by Seaghan McKay.

As for the original story set to such wondrously moving music, one could do worse than to echo the words of the conductor: “the word that sums up Puccini's music is passion”, and this company has surely proven that in this undeniably passionate production.

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