La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa with English supertitles by Celeste Montemarano. Directed by Chuck Hudson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mimi: "I really must go." Rodolfo: "Baby, it’s cold outside."
Troy Cook (Marcello), Jason Hardy (Colline), Maureen O'Flynn (Mimi), and John Bellemer (Rodolfo) in Act Two; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sari Gruber as Musetta; photo: Kevin Sprague
Classic seduction plays a central role in the story of Mimi and Rodolfo, the ill-fated young lovers in Puccini’s "La Boheme," based on incidents in the book "Scenes de la Vie de La Boheme" by Henri Murger. One of two operas created at virtually the same moment in time, 1896-97 (the other version by Leoncavallo remains more faithful to the book), but set in the Paris of the 1840s, the Puccini opera has been a popular favorite and major money-maker for opera companies since its premiere in the Belle Epoque. Berkshire Opera has wisely reset the opera in the era in which it was written and is performing it in the beautifully decorated and recently restored 1903 Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Here is a jewel-box setting for an intricately cut and excellently mounted gem of a production.
Like Rodolfo’s seduction of Mimi, or hers of him if you prefer to think of them that way, this company seduces its audience. To an almost completely sold-out house the opera on stage is what this collection of opera watchers wanted, asked for, needed. That sense of seduction across the footlights, the back and forth romance of the romantic story and romantic music, was all pervasive and that was just as it should have been.
This theater reopened after more than half a century of darkness with a touring production of "Rent" the Broadway musical which was taken from the same source material as "La Boheme" and now it has housed the all-time winner in the bohemian song race and proven, once and for all, that this theater requires no microphones, amplifiers, or rock bands to provide both quality public presentations and quantity attendance.
The orchestra pit contained thirty-five musicians and the conductor. There was a chorus of sixteen along with five non-singing extras, seven principal singers wearing period costumes and a set that was both functional and attractive. Opening night’s Gala audience included Governor and Mrs. Deval Patrick, the Mayor of Pittsfield and Mrs. James Ruberto, and beautifully dressed people willing to pay up to $90 a ticket to see a work considered a "war-horse," a piece produced at some point by every opera company in the world, professional, non-professional and amateur. This was not something new, but rather something old and comforting and compelling. Lessons to be learned, I hope, by presenters in the region. Good, first-quality material will always draw attention.
The performance itself was grand. Local diva Maureen O’Flynn, now an internationally acclaimed opera star, performed the role of Mimi, the not-quite innocent girl who seduces the young writer Rodolfo. Sari Gruber, whose appearances with this company over the past several years have been neo-legendary, played the role of Musetta, the best flirt in Paris. Tenor John Bellemer was Rodolfo and Musetta’s favorite swain, the painter Marcello, was performed by Troy Cook. This superb quartet of players brought fire and passion and humor to their roles, all of them sung with fervor, clarity and an intensely interpretive style.
Cook and Gruber were the better actors in this group, never varying from the characters they played. Bellemer was moving as he burned his manuscript in act one and equally emotional at the opera’s end. His passion and fire seemed to die out in Act Two at the Café Momus. O’Flynn was touching, heart-rendingly ill and needy in the last two acts, but a bit stand-offish in the early acts. Her singing was delectable, but her role required a bit more physical beauty at the outset.
In the supporting roles were three men who could not have been better cast. Ryan Allen was a hilarious landlord, Benoit, and an equally fascinating Alcindoro - an older man courting Musetta. He sang both roles well, but unlike so many before him he took on Benoit as the comic challenge he should be and made the most of his scene. Marcus DeLoach was Schaunard, the musician among the Bohemians. An excellent baritone he made the most of the smallest and least significant of the four young men roles. Jason Hardy as the philosopher Colline, was outstanding. He has a flair for physical comedy and bass voice that could melt butter. In his fourth act aria, Vecchia Zimarra, in which he says a reluctant farewell to the coat he is willing to sell to aid the recovery of a dying Mimi, he was touching and nearly stopped the show in its tracks. A call of "Bravo!" was appropriate and it rang through the auditorium. His program bio indicates that he will sing Leporello in Don Giovanni soon, but quite frankly his style, his extraordinary good looks and his voice make him a perfect choice for the Don himself.
Hudson has taken this opera into the plains of reality with strong physical kinships and a sense of realism that sharpened those relationships. He has painted pictures that make sense and that aid in the tugging of our heartstrings. It is beautiful work and this company will be fortunate to have him back in future seasons. Kathleen Kelly, conducting the orchestra, brought the most beautiful sounds to life from the pit and simultaneously guided her singers in perfect harmony and ideal entrances.
The set designed by Jean-Francois Revon is both functional and attractive. With this one intermission version (the second act cuts help with the timing), there is a decent flow on the double raked platform which dominates the stage left area. It did point up one flaw in this otherwise lovely performance space. There seemed to be a dead spot for sound just right of upstage center. Several times as singers passed through that point voice levels dropped to an almost imperceptible level.
The costumes by Charles Caine were perfection. Each character was defined by his her clothing and Mimi’s in particular showed us the subtle lies in the seduction. It’s a careful and clever choice made by the designer. The evening’s lighting was superb. John Demous understands the needs of an opera that must define its time and place while being defined by its seasons. The romance begins in winter, ends in late Spring. He has given us all we need through color, placement and cuing. He has also underscored the emotions of the final act perfectly.
For those unfamiliar with the opera I will warn you that the first act is a series of amusing ensemble pieces for about 21 minutes and then it gives way to the memorable melodies for which Puccini is so rightly celebrated in this particular work. The surtitles help the uninitiated, and for the comic moments, straighten us all out a bit.
It is the double joy of hearing and seeing wonderful opera in a place designed to showcase it that makes this season’s major offering by The Berkshire Opera such a pleasure. Indulge yourself.
"La Boheme" will be performed four more times this coming week at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, August 22 and 24 at 8:00PM and August 20 and 26 at 2:00PM. Tickets are $40-$90. Some student tickets may be available FREE. For information and tickets call the opera company at 413-442-9955 or the Colonial Theatre box office at 413-997-4444.