Review: LA Opera Presents the Classic ‘La Bohème’ with a Renewed, Stylish Sensibility

Saimir Pirgu and Marina Costa-Jackson in LA Opera's 2019 production of "La Bohème." Photo credit: Cory Weaver

The following review of LA Opera’s “La Bohème” is based on the Wednesday, October 2nd performance. The last showing of this production is on Sunday, October 6th at 2 pm.

Composed in 1895, and having debuted the subsequent year, Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with its Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, has unquestionably become one of the few operas that even novices of the genre can name. And similar to LA Opera’s last offering, “La Traviata,” the premise concerns the deterioration of the female protagonist’s health (due to tuberculosis) – a misfortune that also devastates the love-struck male counterpart who falls for her. The inherent tragedy of “La Bohème” remains unchanged. What is intriguing for audiences who experience LA Opera’s 2019-20 season opener, however, is that the European opera giant, director Barrie Kosky, has brought his reconception of the four-act opera from the Komische Opera Berlin to Los Angeles, making it more evocative, existential, and edgier. In fact, it’s the first time in 25 years that “La Bohème” has experienced such a makeover.

(L-R) Nicholas Brownlee, Kihun Yoon, Michael J. Hawk, and Saimir Pirgu in LA Opera’s 2019 production of “La Bohème.” Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Granted, the premise has also remained the same. But, the updated non-verbal cues, and Rufus Didwiszus’ starkly somber and simple scenery (accentuated by Alessandro Carletti’s clever use of lighting), in addition to Victoria Behr’s formfitting couture, hint at a time closer to the present despite the story’s placement in 19th century Paris. These new accoutrements are not superfluous frills, but instead they meaningfully enhance the story, ensuring that the beautifully sad denouement resonates more impactfully and much longer.

The wintry Christmastime arc explores two up-and-down romantic relationships that two friends and roommates — poet Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu) and photographer Marcello (Kihun Yoon) – have with their respective women, Mimi (Marina Costa-Jackson) and Musetta (Erica Petrocelli). The Rodolfo-Mimi relationship, though, is more central to “La Bohème,” with a love that blossoms by chance when Mimi serendipitously arrives at the flat Rodolfo lives in, which is also shared with roommates Schaunard (Michael J. Hawk), a musician with a carefree playfulness, and Colline (Nicholas Brownlee), a philosophy student who pridefully wears his leopard-print coat. And despite any intra-quarrels between this collective, Mimi’s failing health binds them together, with Rodolfo at the very front of this sadly inevitable tribulation.

Thematically, the opera is predominantly split down the middle, with Acts I and II being infused with a winsome hopefulness if not an enthusiastically combustive quality, and Acts III and IV adamantly reasserting the lugubrious tone subtly presaged at the outset. As the leads, Saimir Pirgu and Marina Costa-Jackson head a cast that has rightly earned approbation as either members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists Program or victors of the Operalia competition. These are newer faces of the opera scene, and it’s invigorating to witness the next generation of virtuosos interpret classical works, sometimes guided by a refreshingly unconventional director like Kosky.

Kihun Yoon and Erica Petrocelli (both in front) with Michael J. Hawk (far left) in LA Opera’s 2019 production of “La Bohème.” Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Pirgu’s Rodolfo, who is mostly seen in a purple velvet suit, and Costa-Jackson’s Mimi, who for the better part of the opera wears a black-and-grey plaid blouse, excitedly and pensively contemplate their relationship. They are madly in love, but they’re also fortified in their individual identities, empowered and worthy of respect. Better yet, they’re equals tasked with planning their future as a couple, compromised by the pall of Mimi’s fate.

In their moments together, the star leads are heartbreakingly endearing. Pirgu has the ability to reach the furthest notes at the highest end of his resonant register, emoting a compassion for his beloved that fills the observer with an unshakeable poignancy. Likewise, the incredibly charming Costa-Jackson is the perfect soprano for this role, inasmuch that her seraphic singing comes across as raw feeling rather than just mere musical notes. The last images of their duet strikes a self-contemplative pause in the audience member, who might be left to wonder about the legacy of one’s life and the loved ones left behind in one’s wake.

As Musetta, Erica Petrocelli is the epitome of the awakened 2019 woman. She is liberated in every sense of the word; she isn’t afraid to express her desires, nor does she allow herself to be held back by any limiting societal mores. If something can fly off a page in a book, Petrocelli’s depiction of the coquettish Musetta fills more than just the stage, as her unmitigated energy diffuses the entire Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, particularly in Act II’s Café Momus scene.

Saimir Pirgu and Marina Costa-Jackson in LA Opera’s 2019 production of “La Bohème.” Photo credit: Cory Weaver

The potpourri of people and personalities at the carousel of the Café Momus – including dancing children in clown attire along with the chief clown, Parpignol (Robert Stahley) — complements Musetta’s loud-and-proud act wonderfully, as all eyes fall on her when everyone else freezes in place (this makes for a terrific visual). The conflict here, of course, is that Musetta uses her new boyfriend, Alcindoro – played by Patrick Blackwell – to make Kihun Yoon’s Marcello jealous. It is a cat-and-mouse game of fiery emotions that highlights Yoon’s comic timing and soul-baring deep timbre, and especially Petrocelli’s free-spirited vocals, as Blackwell’s character is comically left helpless and with only the restaurant tab to console him.

Another underrated performance is by Michael J. Hawk, whose purveyor-of-happy-news Schaunard — upon finally getting paid to work — provides a celebratory respite for his roommates in Act I (which is also notable for the physical absence of the rent-collecting landlord, Benoit). Nicholas Brownlee’s Colline is also pleasant as evinced by the effective portrayal of selflessness toward the ailing Mimi. Interestingly, Brownlee is reprising a persona that he also played three-and-a-half years prior in LA Opera’s prior production of “La Bohème” (Yoon was in that too, but he played Schaunard).

Deserving of acclaim as much as, if not more so, for the success of this “La Bohème” are the musicians and musical tacticians who exquisitely bring to life Puccini’s score of bilateral moods – inclusive of hopeful and even comic undertones as well as bittersweet lament.  The first is resident conductor James Conlon, whose historically intimate knowledge of these works comes through in his fervency with the baton. The second is LA Opera Chorus director, Grant Gershon, who remains ever the stalwart in making sure that the singing is as accurate as it is rife with emotional depth. Lastly, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus director, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, does a great job of not only making Act II as memorable as it is, but prepares the young vocalists for even bigger things to come.

Needless to say, Kosky’s rendition of “La Bohème” is a superlative operatic revival and reshaping of a production that could be found in just about every opera “greatest hits” compendium. The difference in this one is that the bohemian personalities of this production have never seemed more intrinsically tied to the Parisian society they are inhabitants of, driven to pursue their art, their loves, and their passions — movingly humanized as they are — in view of modern audiences whom they’re made vulnerable to.

For more information about LA Opera’s 2019 production of “La Bohème,” please visit:


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