Note: This review is based on the May 22nd performance.
The LA Opera, in its 30th anniversary, is arguably more robust than it has ever been, attracting different demographics, introducing the many uninitiated to timeless works of art that deeply touch the soul.
Since May 14th, opera dignitaries Plácido Domingo, James Conlon, and Christopher Koelsch have presented Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica), a classic opera in Italian about the complexities encompassing love during Paris in the 1830s.
The current representation of the story, directed by Peter Kazaras and conducted by the immensely talented Speranza Scappucci (Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the June 10th and 12th performances), has stirred the hearts of, and related to, audiences at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Grand Avenue.
In Act I of the four-act play, we see an innocent, bearded man on Christmas Eve, whose love of poetry is only exceeded by his need for feminine inspiration. Mario Chang, who plays the part of the male protagonist (Rodolfo) with genuine flair, is summarily overcome with joy when his neighbor seamstress, Mimi, portrayed by Nino Machaidze, knocks on his door. At this point, a simple series of serendipities, beginning with being alone after bidding adieu to his friends to get work done, benefits Rodolfo when Mimi’s candle not only blows out, but she loses her keys. In looking for them, Rodolfo and Mimi form a bond as pure and as beautifully simple as the situation that sparked it.
Certainly, Mimi needs Rodolfo as much as he needs her, and thus Machaidze communicates an empowered passion for her character’s newfound lover with the clarity in which she sings, and the confidence in which she transitions between notes. Chang bellows with such fervent appreciation as Rodolfo, given his good fortune, that the audience roots for both his happiness and the muse that elicited it.
Act II offers the most sensory stimulation of the night, rife with a spectacular spectrum of colors and sounds in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Here we become more acquainted with Rodolfo’s best friend, Marcello (played with sensational suaveness by Giorgio Caoduro), and his estranged lover Musetta (portrayed by Amanda Woodbury). However, Musetta happens to be with her new, but much older and anxiety-besieged companion, Alcindoro (Philip Cokorinos).
Consequently, in the midst of a surrounding pastiche of celebrating trumpeters, children performing feats of balance on inflated balls, a charismatic toy vendor (Parpignol / Arnold Livingston Geis), café patrons, and a puffery of Parisian flags, is an astounding game of playing-hard-to-get between Marcello and Musetta. Eventually, Musetta, who is unable to abide Marcello’s lack of attention any longer, takes the scene over with her resonant voice, as Alcindoro is left comically helpless, frantically trying to remedy the situation, but to no avail, as he is abandoned, taking solace in only the final tab.
During the entire fracas, Woodbury is a revelation as the spirited and feisty Musetta, who is adamantly independent about how she lives her life, including who she sleeps with. Though the mustachioed Cokorinos (who previously wore a beard as Benoit, the landlord, in Act I) is conceivably the scene-stealer as Alcindoro in the way he feverishly admonishes Musetta when he becomes all too aware that he is losing control of his coveted gem. His frustration is both heartfelt and facetious, and, when Act II comes to a close, his curtain call is absolutely deserved.
Act III reasserts the somberness of the play, specifically the relationship strife between Marcello and Musetta, but especially Mimi and Rodolfo. For the latter two, fate hasn’t been too kind, as we learn that Rodolfo is starting to pull away from Mimi, who has been encumbered by health problems. The couple, who are now overwhelmed by fear of what the future may bring, and driven by actions to protect themselves from hurt, wistfully promise to each other that they will at least stay together until the flowers bloom again in the spring; the harsh winter would be too demoralizing for the lonely person.
In the concluding Act (IV), Rodolfo and Marcello, having been separated from their women, try to forget the past in order to tolerate the present. Not only does this not happen, despite their friends Schaunard and Colline (played with top-notch appeal by Kihun Yoon and Nicholas Brownlee, respectively) proffering support, but the atmosphere takes a crestfallen turn with the news of Mimi’s declining health, as revealed by Musetta.
Ultimately, Mimi returns to Rodolfo one final time, even leaving the wealthy viscount she was with in order to do so. In her ailing circumstance, collapsed in a chair, Machaidze, as Mimi, by sheer force of will, musters one powerful note after another while the others are scrambling, humble in the face of their friend’s impending death. In channeling Rodolfo, Chang delivers incredibly sturdy but solemn sounds of comfort to both Mimi and the crowd, who can readily anticipate the unthinkable.
Before Mimi succumbs to her tragedy, she asks Rodolfo if he still thinks she’s beautiful. He answers, “You’re as beautiful as the dawn.” And in the unfortunate harbinger of what comes all too soon, she corrects him – “You picked the wrong image. You should have said, ‘beautiful as the sunset.’”
When Rodolfo discovers that the love of his life has passed on, he, in the sole instance of the night, tries to make sense of what has befallen him by gut-wrenchingly speaking his lines, not singing them. The delivery of the words, done so with an inconsolable grief, rings true to those who have lived long enough, and those who can recognize precious memories through the unforgiving lens of time and chance.
Overall, the cast’s sterling execution of both the music and acting make La Bohème a standout production that cannot be missed.
There are five more performances of La Bohème – on May 25th, May 28th, June 5th, June 10th, and June 12th. LA Philharmonic Music and Artistic Director, Gustavo Dudamel, will conduct the last two performances.
For more information, visit http://www.laopera.org/season/1516-season-at-a-glance/la-boheme/