Los Angeles Opera
Under the guidance of the versatile Placido Domingo, the LA Opera brings a renewed vigor to one of the most popular operas of all time. The constant struggle to forge new artistic ground is tempered by audience demands of delivering the tried and true. This struggle cuts across all art forms, and the stakes invariably get higher as the cost of production rises. Picasso found it easier to break new ground than does a philharmonic.
Nonetheless, the production of La Bohème (currently on offer through December 16) offers the familiar tale of doomed lovers in a vibrant and gratifying way.
The four acts open on a Parisian rooftop where our artistic heroes are bemoaning the cold winter weather. Offering to burn his writings for warmth while his friend continues painting, the stage is set for the bohemian life whence comes the opera’s name.
Massimo Giordano plays the painter Rodolfo, who falls in love with his neighbor Mimi, an ailing but beautiful seamstress. His pal the writer Marcello is ably performed by Luca Salsi. Virginia Tola brings beauty and evocative demeanor to the role of Mimi. The rooftop setting is somewhat pastoral, suggesting we are on the outskirts of Paris. But as the opening scene unfolds, the set sweeps back and we see the Eiffel Tower under construction. (Purisits may quibble with a continuity error, as the Tower did not begin construction for a few decades after the production’s stated 1830s setting). Rodolfo meets Mimi when she comes looking to relight her candle, then he equally coyly hides the key she ostensibly drops by accident.
Opera is clearly not about the plot; everyone in the building knows Mimi dies at the final curtain. Opera is more about using the plot to wring emotional artistry out of music. The ideal production buttresses the music, and this LA Opera production fulfills that promise. For instance, Act Two opens on a vibrant street scene in the Latin Quarter, where our bohemians are celebrating Christmas Eve with a few hard fought francs. The set is marvelous, with a barber in a window, a silky colorful magician and his retinue performing while the boulevardiers stroll and linger. The fashions are remarkably accurate (purists will enjoy that the color mauve was just beginning to sweep Europe after its invention by a British chemist). Musetta, the lover of writer Marcello, is being courted by a wealthy patron who eventually is stuck with the bohemians’ sizable bar tab.
The best act is the third. The plot reaches its fullest and the stage set is the most effective. Over the course of the opera the characters are constantly awaiting the arrival of spring. The promise of warmth and rebirth is a recurrent theme, as is foolish male jealousy. As Mimi’s sickness worsens, she and Rodolfo agree to leave each other in the springtime partly out of Rodolfo’s unfounded jealousy and partly so she can find someone wealthier to care for her. Over the course of the third act, Gerard Howland’s design includes a sky which goes from dark to dawn.
The final act opens with a goofy comical bit played by the four male leads, which is a motif to juxtapose the tragedy of Mimi’s death. She returns to Rodolfo when she knows she is dying, and naturally he is the last to discover she has died while resting on his chaise.
This is an opera which has been staged countless times. It has been subject to the inevitable scrutiny of whetherit is great because it is popular or vice versa. You owe it to yourself to find out.
La Bohème is playing through Dec 16 at Los Angeles Opera. For more information, visit www.losangelesopera.com