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In Review > North America

La Bohème

LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles Opera
5/20/12

Los Angeles Opera's recent revival of La Bohème (seen May 20)presented a vision of Puccini's operain which unconditional love was at a premium and the prospect of feelings lasting for ever was non-existent. Gregory A. Fortner, who was responsible for remounting the late Herbert Ross's original 1993 production, darkened the mood considerably. Fortner directed on a moment-to-moment basis, which gave the action body and interest, and showed a fine sense of the dynamics of stage space; Act III in particular, which seemed quite stark and modernist, packed considerable power. The band that played at the end of Act II was pied noir, which struck an alienating note. 

From the start it was clear that Mimì did not just happen upon Rodolfo but had had her eyes on him before. He, however, was not especially interested in her. Their first encounter, when she imposed herself on him, was marked by his indifference to her, and even "Che gelida manina" seemed to suggest that Rodolfo was persuading himself to like her, rather than emerging as a declaration of nascent love. It was only in Act III, when Rodolfo's fundamental indifference had hardened into guilt and Mimì had grown to love her erstwhile prey, that genuine feelings of attraction and repulsion came into play. Even in the final scene, as Mimì lay dying, it was clear this young couple had not yet worked their relationship through. 

Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello worked hard to give this dysfunctional Mimì–Rodolfo relationship stage life, and the work paid off. Pérez's voice is multifaceted, and it served her well as she slid from wheedling coquette to greedy consumer to a woman facing severe emotional crisis. Costello's tenor is nothing if not elegant; it has an air of poise that allowed him to maintain a distance from Mimì. He cut short the extended notes that end each line of "Che gelida manina," giving the famous aria a choppy, unromantic quality. And for minutes at a time, this Mimì and Rodolfo stood embarrassed and often expressionless next to each other. 

This was the least demonstrative Bohème I have ever seen, but it was also one of the most moving. Puccini's music was never in danger of sounding gushy or sentimental; rather, it charted out an emotional terrain (very characteristic of the 1890s) in which the lovers never quite felt the feelings they wished they had. The desolation this failure caused them was overwhelming, especially in Act III, when Mimì's distraught cries made us realize — just as she realized it — the pain her earlier machinations had caused her.

The Bohemian milieu, normally quite lovingly portrayed in this oft-revived production, was less sympathetic this time around. Artur Rucinski made his U.S. debut as a disquieting Marcello, with the face of a pre-Raphaelite angel, a baritone of riveted steel and a nonchalant air toward everyone. Certainly one could understand the fury that drove Janai Brugger's feisty and extravagant Musetta away from this not entirely likeable figure. Robert Pomakov was an irrevocably grouchy Colline and Museop Kim, in addition to displaying a fluid light baritone as Schaunard, was wonderfully adept on his feet. But in this disjointed world, touches of comedy were fleeting at best. 

Among the many company debuts in this production was that of conductor Patrick Summers, who led a notably well-coordinated ensemble. The clipped quality that marked Costello's singing was not an isolated phenomenon. Summers sustained faster than normal tempos in the first two acts, which lent a barbed wit to the action and ensured that it never strayed into self-indulgence; the concertato following Musetta's song was delivered with impressive panache. In contrast, the pace abated in Act III, complementing perfectly the unfolding tragic pattern of the action. This was not a grim Bohème; it was nervous, disconcerting, spiky. After this production I will listen to Puccini's opera with renewed interest. spacer 

SIMON WILLIAMS

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