There are many reasons why Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the world’s most often-performed operas. It is compact and fast-moving, with a sure sense of timing. It calls for a cast of modest size and a chorus that can be larger or smaller as circumstances allow; what’s more, the individual singers all have opportunities for dramatic characterization. Even the smallest roles, like Alcindoro, the would-be sugar-daddy of Musetta, and Benoit, the landlord bilked of his rent, are more than simply place-holders during their brief time on stage. And the major roles of the two couples, Rodolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta, are just gifts to the singing actor. What’s more, staging demands are modest. With a house like the Metropolitan Opera, one can do the Franco Zeffirelli bit, in which an artist’s garret has 30-foot-high ceilings and picture windows that show all of Paris. Or — more true to the material — one can stage the opera in something much closer to an artist’s garret, as the enterprising Boston Opera Collaborative has done with the simple directness of its La Bohème in the Tower Auditorium at MassArt, which I saw on March 2. Additional performances will be presented next weekend.
Though the Tower Auditorium is not richly equipped with a deep orchestra pit or large fly-space above the stage, it works reasonably well for operas that can be compressed to the intimacy that La Bohème has. Moreover a space this size allows a comfortable balance between the singers and the orchestra. The singers mostly have fine voices, but few (at least in this context) possess the kind of operatic power that would reach the Family Circle at the Met over an orchestra much larger than the one here; but in Tower Auditorium, the vocal lines and the words can be heard everywhere.
The sets were constructed largely of paintings (or rather, suggestions of paintings, mostly in a sepia grisaille rather than full-color oils), enough to suggest the world of the artists who share their humble garret. When the scene opens out (for Acts II and III) to the outdoors, the theme of the “paintings” is largely retained, giving a consistent look to the set throughout.
Any regular operagoer and probably even first-timers will know before the opera starts that Mimi will die at the end. All the more surprising, then, is the character of romantic comedy that pervades the score. There are sad or sentimental or worrisome moments earlier in the opera, but nothing that couldn’t be brought to a happy ending until just past the middle of the final act, when Musetta suddenly breaks in on the horseplay of the four artists to usher in the dying Mimi.
Puccini’s gift at light-hearted or even frankly comic scenes is more fully represented in La Bohème than in any of his other operas except the totally comic Gianni Schicchi. So it was a pleasure to see the lively comic interaction of Giovanni Formisano (Rodolfo), Seth Grondin (Marcello), Andy Papas (Schaunard) and Colman Reaboi (Colline) in the first half of both the first and last acts. These lively scenes were staged with energy and good humor, thus making for a fine dramatic surprise at Musetta’s arrival in the last act, where the mood is suddenly transmuted to tragedy, both musically and in the painfully constrained gestures (intentionally so!) of the characters trying to be helpful without interfering in Rodolfo and Mimi’s last moments together.
Act II was somewhat more problematic in its staging, since the small performance space was filled with bustling crowds of Christmas shoppers plus all six of the main characters and incidental figures, too. The parade of soldiers called for at the end of the act would have been too much if it had not been imagined as marching through the audience to the martial tunes in the orchestra, while the characters on stage were watching and cheering the soldiers, and eventually following them off. Act III was also set outdoors but was far less busy, being devoted almost entirely the duets with Marcello or Rodolfo and Mimi, except for a few passages of scene setting involving a small number of choristers entering the city gates at dawn.
In all of this, the staging was direct and workable; in the lively playfulness of the more comic scenes, it was distinctly amusing. In the longer set pieces, the singers acted very well especially while singing; but when they were listening to another character singing a longish solo passage, there was a tendency for the one not singing to lose focus, to be evidently waiting for the next entrance. Of course it is likely that this sort of interaction will become more lively farther into the run, as more performances in front of any audience inspire that kind of full participation.
One other aspect of the opera on opening night that will probably be a little smoother with more performances under the belt is the timing of the supertitles, which on a number of occasions either got ahead of the singers or fell behind — usually only by a few seconds, but it can damage the effect of a striking pronouncement if the supertitles give it away before the music does — and it can confuse those who don’t know the opera or the language if something is clearly happening and the translation is lacking.
I have left for last a discussion of the musical performance itself, because that is the heart of opera. The modest (28-piece) orchestra acquitted itself well in the complex writing and constantly changing tempos of the opera. Conductor Adam Boyles controlled the flow and the pacing well, and kept orchestra and stage in sync.
The opera was double-cast; I heard the singers of the opening night. All the principal roles will alternate between the two casts.
The singers on Friday night were mostly entirely effective. Especially in their most passionate moments, Formisano and Leah Hungerford (Mimi) soared vocally. At her entrance, Mimi was subdued and not quite so well characterized in her “getting acquainted” dialogue with Rodolfo, while his recitative was more clearly projected and characterized. But by the end of the act, it was clear that Mimi and Rodolfo would make the force of their love convincing. Seth Grondin’s Marcello was sometimes a little dry-voiced in sustained passages, but his personality, especially when trying to contain his frustration with Musetta, was spot on. Natalie Polito’s Musetta was, for this listener, the most fully complete performance in vocal color and projection, as well as dramatic characterization — the minx with the heart of gold. The members of the chorus and the singers in the smaller parts all relished the tidbits that Puccini gave them.
This charming La Bohème offered a lovely entertainment with an intimacy that envelops cast, orchestra and audience alike.