Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
La Bohéme is based on stories by Henri Murger about the bohemian denizens of 1830s Paris. These are archetypal starving artistspainters, poets, philosophers, and musiciansand the women who share their lust for a life rich in creativity and heart, though poor in creature comforts or stability. This makes it one of the first operas not built around kings or queens, priests or demons, high-born lords or ladies, generals or chieftains, or creatures possessed of magic. Its main characters are impoverished, with a couple of bourgeois secondary roles drawn as near-buffoons. Though the primary tone is of love and desire cut short, there are numerous moments of love's rewards, as well as comic scenes that illustrate the gaiety and joys that are their lives' rewards. It suggests that nobility, purity of heart, and sharpness of mind reside among those at the bottom, rather than the top, of the social ladder. Perhaps that is part of the reason La Bohéme is especially loved.
The four-act opera opens in an artists' garret shared by the poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello. It is Christmas Eve, but the two impoverished friends are preoccupied with their hunger and the bruising cold. The story is built around two couples. Most central is Rodolfo and Mimi, a charming girl from the country who lives in a room downstairs from them. She embroiders roses and lilies onto fabric"I love all things ... that speak of love, of spring," she explains to Rodolfo. She and Rodolfo meet when she knocks at their door to ask for a light for her candle, and they are instantly drawn together. The get to know each other delicately but with a steadiness that insists they will love one another always.
The second couple is Marcello and Musette, a strong-willed and outspoken woman who allows no one to own her. She has broken Marcello's heart by leaving him for a fussy but well-heeled gentleman. By the end of act two, Musette and Marcello have reunited, at least for the moment. Both couples find the course of love strained and challenged throughout act three, leading them to find redemption in act four, which famously includes Mimi's death from consumption, a disease brought on by the conditions of povertycold, inadequate nutrition, and air saturated with industrial pollution.
In addition to those four principals, the story includes Rodolfo and Marcello's friends, the philosopher Colline and the musician Schaunard. Both of them, as well as Marcello and Musette, find their better selves in the light of Mimi and Rodolfo's pure love. There are also the two buffoons spoken of above: Benoit, Rodolfo and Marcello's landlord whose vanity derails his efforts to collect their overdue rent, and Alcindoro, the well-heeled gent who appears clueless to Musette's taking advantage of his largesse.
The settings, designed by Michael Yeargan, do almost as much as Puccini's music in telling the story. The garret in act one is ingeniously constructed as an entire room that sits above stage level, with a skylight vented ceiling, surrounded by the urbanism of Paris that is both grimy and romantic at the same time. The set makes evident the physical constraints on the lives of these Parisians committed to live as artists, free of convention but also free of comforts. Act two is set outside a café where Mimi and Rodolfo join his friends for Christmas Eve dinner. The plaza is alive with people, music, games, fooda cornucopia of celebration, brought to life by a 36-member chorus as well as a 14-member children's chorus. The fruition of love between Rodolfo and Mimi, and the rekindling of passion between Marcello and Musette seem to draw nourishment from the joyful sentiments that surround them.
Act three is set in a courtyard with a chained gate restricting entry. Off the courtyard is a tavern where Marcello and Musette have been working while their relationship begins again to chafe. Rodolfo and Mimi seek counsel to save their love from the specter of Mimi's worsening illness. The large, somber design towers over the lovers, making them seem smaller than they had in the bloom of their love. Act four brings us back to the garret, the confining setting that, after the spectacle of the plaza and the bleakness of the courtyard, seems to be the authentic home for these seekers of truth, love and beauty.
The four principal characters are all double-cast, and the performers we saw are superb. As Mimi, Nicole Cabell sings beautifully, her lush soprano full of passion yet remaining gentle, never over-reaching for power. She acts the role perfectly, convincingly good-hearted and genuine in her feelings. Mary Evelyn Hangley's Musette is just the opposite, defiantly brash and comfortable with putting her own needs first. Ms. Hangley's singing is more forceful than Ms. Cabell's, but with complete control. Scott Quinn conveys Rodolfo's committed passion for poetry and art, and the depth of his love for Mimi with joy and sorrow both convincingly represented. His sweet tenor is perfectly suited for a man living by the impulses of his heart. Edward Parks is a strong Marcello, agonizing when abandoned by Musette, agonizing again when they are reunited. His baritone is well suited for Marcello's efforts to be strong and maintain his dignity when burned by love. Together with Thomas Glass as Schaunard and Benjamin Sieverding as Colline, Parks and Quinn have great rapport as a cluster of friends, clowning and commiserating together with complete conviction.
Under Assistant Conductor Jonathan Brandani's baton, the Minnesota Opera Orchestra play every note with clarity and heart. Octavio Cardenas provides steady stage direction that keeps the many parts moving smoothly, particularly the fully stuffed stage in the act two Christmas celebrations. He uses space outside the garret to expand the performances without losing the sense of confinement provided by the interior. William Mahoney designed gorgeous costumes that maintain fidelity to the characters' economic constraints. Marcus Dilliard's lighting adds dark and light tones to underscore the emotional timbre of each scene, especially effective with the sun streaming through the garret skylight.
Knowing how popular a work La Bohéme is, it is easy to assume there will be other chances to see it. While that is undoubtedly true, Minnesota Opera has done everything right, a compelling reason to see this emotionally and artistically rewarding production.
La Bohéme plays through May 21, 2017, a production of Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $200.00; Student and Senior (62+) discounts available for Thursday and Sunday performances. For tickets and information call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Giacomo Puccini; Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Henry Murger's novel Scenes de la Vie de Bohéme; Stage Director: Octavio Cardenas; Conductor: Michael Christie; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Assistant Conductor and Chorusmaster: Jonathan Brandani; Children's Chorusmaster: Matthew Abernathy; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: William Mahoney; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Répétiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; English Captions: Floyd Anderson; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.
Cast: Madeline Anderson (Street Vendor), William Lee Bryan (Marcello*), Nicole Cabell (Mimi*), Christopher Colmenero (Parpignol), Ben Crickenberger (Benoit/Alcindoro), Thomas Glass (Schaunard), Mary Evelyn Hangley (Musetta*), Miriam Khalil (Mimi *), Adam Luther (Rodolfo*), Joel Mathias (Customs Sergeant), Edward Parks (Marcello*), Scott Quinn (Rodolfo *), Alexandra Razskazoff (Musetta*), Alex Ritchie (Customs Officer), Norah Shea (Street Urchin), and Benjamin Sieverding (Colline). * alternating performances