Boston Lyric Opera opened its 39th season with an intriguing new production of La Bohème this Friday at the Shubert Theater. Making her U.S. debut, stage director Rosetta Cucchi drew inspiration from French New Wave cinema, updating the action to the days surrounding the violent and calamitous student uprising in Paris in May 1968 which escalated to such a point that President Charles de Gaulle very briefly fled the country and the Sorbonne shut down for only the second time in its seven-century history.
In her extensive notes, BLO dramaturg Magda Romanska remarks on the confluent sources that inform her proprietarily branded “La Bohème: BLO’s Version.” She cites Bertold Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and of course, Henri Murger (from whose 1848 novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème the opera takes its scenario), contributing to a sense that BLO has refashioned the opera as a New Wave film with its own political agenda— a kind of socialist morality play. This concept as such is not always successful. Burdened with a multitude of extra-textual allusions, the show sometimes seems at odds with the original. Did the team really need to insert references to Che Guevara, Christian Dior and other 20th-century entities in the translation used for the surtitles? While Cucchi articulated a clear dramatic arc and elicited deep interpretations from an exceptionally talented cast, the ambition of her concept gets in its own way.
Friday evening got off to a rocky start; the orchestra seemed to drag tempi throughout the first act, causing more than a few moments of unintentional rubato from the singers. Forces were considerably more united in the second act, and by the third all hands seemed to have recovered from first-night jitters. That said, though there were moments of brilliance in the individual sections (the woodwinds were particularly on point, as was harpist Ina Zdorovetchi), the orchestra gave a somewhat under-rehearsed impression throughout.
Despite that unsteady beginning, the judiciously chosen cast gave rich performances across the board. The female leads each defied certain stereotypes associated with her role, with refreshing and thought-provoking results. As Mimì, soprano Kelly Kaduce brought a darker, weightier sound to a role that is traditionally associated with a brighter instrument, a trend that has led to portrayals that range from innocently endearing to cloyingly angelic. Kaduce’s dark, crimson-hued timbre blossomed in “Mi chiamano Mimì”, and continued to unfold throughout the evening. Her delivery rarely lost its near-perfect control and she displayed a remarkable ability to imitate spoken language through dynamic shifts, even during the music’s most fluid lyrical passages. This vocal delivery, combined with intelligent and intuitive acting, brought uncommon gravitas to the role. One often sees Mimì portrayed with saint-like serenity and child-like purity—an approach that can verge on the ridiculous, given the character’s circumstances. Instead, Kaduce gives us a sensitive young woman acutely aware of her condition and grieving for her loss of innocence—an innocence she perceives and cherishes in her naïve lover, who, in this production specifically, is only just beginning to understand the intense suffering brought on by poverty. It is easy to understand why Kaduce, a true singing actress, has become such a sought-after interpreter of the verismo repertoire. She brings emotional truth and textual specificity, never giving into the histrionics that might tempt a lesser artist.
Soprano Emily Birsan brought a light, lilting soprano to the role of Musetta, spinning a lightning-quick vibrato with the same kind of agile effortlessness with which her character ensnares romantic prey. This too is a departure from traditional vocal casting, in which we often hear Musetta sung by a meatier (more fleshly, perhaps?) voice than that of the Mimì, presumably leading duller audience members to understand which of the ladies is the saint and which is the sinner. Thankfully, BLO treated its audience to a more nuanced choice, and the contrast between Birsan’s silvery lightness and Kaduce’s more substantial timbre highlighted Musetta’s vain foolishness and underscored Mimì’s hard-earned moral authority. Yet Birsan was not without subtlety; she too possesses remarkable control over her instrument, and gave a multicolored delivery of “Quando m’en vo”, cooing the nightclub-act take on the aria with all the soft-but-unambiguous sultriness of a seasoned chanteuse. Birsan avoided falling into the trap of one-dimensionality inherent to a comic secondary lead; in the fourth act, she demonstrated range with a fervent and desperate prayer for Mimì’s delivery from imminent death. The audience was able to see the human being beneath Musetta’s vampy antics as Birsan sang with a warmth and vulnerability only hinted at in the preceding acts. Coupled with Kaduce’s three-dimensional, emotionally mature Mimì, Birsan brought great poignancy to the scene as a whole, her prayer lending new weight to the moment when Mimì exhorts Marcello to forgive Musetta’s dalliances and reconcile with her for good.
Tenor Jesus Garcia brought a combination of youthful masculinity and endearing vulnerability to the role of Rodolfo. He possesses a virile, classically Italianate tenor, the voice throbbing with emotion and ringing with bright tone. Though he did not begin in superb vocal shape—the high note of “Che gelida manina” sounded a bit strangled and threatened momentarily to run off the rails—he quickly regained control and reminded the audience why Rodolfo has been a staple of his repertoire throughout his career. Garcia’s history with the part is long and storied; he was one of the three young singers who played Rodolfo in the original cast of Baz Luhrmann’s controversial 2002 take of the opera on Broadway, and he has played the role with consistent success ever since. His comfort with the character was evident in his thorough knowledge of the text and attention to dramatic detail. He was fully present in his every moment onstage, propelled by intense emotional urgency. In his Act III scene with Marcello, it was impossible to remain unmoved by Rodolfo’s despair at his own inability to provide for his ailing lover. He entered in a righteous huff, citing Mimì’s wandering eye as the reason for his outrage, but when pressed for the true nature of his distress broke down instantly, desperately wringing his hands and running them through his hair, the picture of a young man confronted for the first time with a tragedy he is powerless to prevent. At the close of the evening, Rodolfo’s heartrending repetition of his beloved’s name as he realizes she has died in his arms was quietly electrifying; Garcia wept in silence as the orchestra swelled through to the opera’s somber final bars.
As Marcello, baritone Jonathan Beyer brought a robust-yet-refined sound to the role. Bringing a kind of self-conscious ironic distance to the character, his Marcello is the sulky member of the student group, trying and failing to maintain a façade of studied nonchalance while remaining consistently easy to provoke. This made him a satisfying counterpart to Birsan’s vexatious Musetta, as well as a useful foil to Rodolfo, the overt romantic of the group. As Schaunard, Andrew Garland boasted a round, full, uncommonly bright baritone, bringing exuberant energy to the role, while Brandon Cedel lent the cavernous depths of his bass-baritone to the philosopher Colline. Cedel’s low range was particularly impressive, reaching that immensely resonant, ebony-dark timbre one associates with a true bass; this reviewer would be intrigued hear him in roles that extend the low range even further. Finally, baritone James Maddalena was unusually commanding in the dual role of Benoit/Alcindoro. One rarely thinks of the minor comic part of Benoit as having much weight, but Maddalena’s entrance immediately drew focus and suggested a sinister presence—for once the bohemians’ attempts to derail their landlord suggested bravery as opposed to buffoonery.
Romanska notes that Murger set his novel in the days just following France’s July Revolution of 1830, the same historical event around which Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables revolves. Even without reading the program note or being conversant with Bohème’s history, one might make the association between Hugo and Puccini for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology: in more than one aspect, the BLO’s staging of the opera directly recalls Les Misérables’ own most famous stage adaptation—the 1980 musical of the same name. Of the updated Act III setting, Romanska writes, “the toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer becomes the makeshift revolutionary barricade that the students have assembled from everyday objects. Painted in a steely gray, this barricade is somewhat surreal: both a dreamscape and perhaps a nightmare.” Nightmare or not, this impressive set piece was strikingly reminiscent of the Cameron Mackintosh-produced super-musical, surely one of the most financially successful enterprises the commercial theater world has ever seen. (Brecht, one imagines, would be scandalized.) The appearance of the ramparts was not the first time I was reminded of the musical; Cucchi has altered the ending of the Café Momus scene to include a ragtag group of student revolutionaries holding Alcindoro captive, the latter with an apple shoved in his mouth, forced to wear a sign reading “capitalist pig” while a blood-red light projects across the scrim and young partisans wave red flags. One half-expected the company to begin marching in place while belting out “One Day More.”
That aside, it must be said that the technical aspects were executed superbly, whatever their dramatic applications. John Conklin’s sets, replete with posters and images from Godard and other 20th-century film icons, were consistently effective and at times, witty. The Café Momus, for example, featured portraits of the two iconic Marxes—Karl and Groucho—a detail that spoke to the setting’s cultural associations as well as the libretto’s mixture of silliness and solemnity. Seághan McKay’s projections (including placards with Godard-esque intertitles used between acts and clips showing footage of the 1968 Paris student demonstrations) were beautifully executed and greatly contributed to the feeling that one was watching a live staging of a French New Wave film.
Though I did not find myself ruminating on historical events or political ideology after the show, the mise en scene did occasion a lengthy conversation on the enormous difficulties inherent to living an artistic and/or intellectual lifestyle. The show succeeds in reminding us that such a pursuit can be overwhelming, even soul crushing. Yet this success could have been achieved even without a prodigious amount of extra-textual add-ons. Writes Romanska, “By distancing La Bohème from its traditional, classic depiction and focusing on the everyday life of the French students, we showcase the universal appeal of Puccini’s love story and the transcendental, potent force of youth, driven by passion, desire and idealism.” But the creative team failed to recognize that an unaltered La Bohème depicts nothing but the everyday lives of a group of youthful, sensuous, passionate idealists; all the qualities to which the concept laid claim were already present in the libretto.
Many operas in the standard repertoire require hefty doses of ingenuity to work as coherent theater—La Bohème is not one of them. In its classic depiction it remains the single most popular port-of-entry into the opera world, and as a multitude of cultural cross-references make clear (the film Moonstruck and the commercially successful musical Rent are just two examples that come to mind) it has never needed to make a case for its own accessibility. Indeed, to be effective, the only elements Bohème really requires are an orchestra filled with accomplished musicians and a cast of intelligent singers who know how to act and work together as an ensemble. More than equipped with these qualities, BLO’s Bohème is well worth witnessing.
La Boheme’s repeats on October 4th, 7th, 9th and 11th at the Citi Performing Arts CenterSM Shubert Theater in Boston.