Before a performance of this entirely satisfying opera last week, director Peter Rothstein addressed the audience, encouraging them to inform their friends if they liked what they saw, and to turn off their cell phones. We wouldn't want a ringer going off during Mimi's death scene, he added, as had occurred opening night. Then Rothstein caught himself, aghast. He'd just given away the ending.
Rothstein needn't have fretted. The audience reacted with a roar of laughter, because anyone with a glancing familiarity with La Bohème knows that Mimi's a goner, and the ending is telegraphed anyway from her first tubercular cough. Before that happens, the story deals with a gang of four Parisian intellectuals and unrepentant slackers. The poet Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi after a chance encounter in their apartment building. Rodolfo's best friend, the painter Marcello, has had his heart broken by the vamp Musetta, who uses and discards men like Kleenex but who, you know, really has a heart of gold.
Plot-driven it's not. The real drama was whether Rothstein's largely youthful cast could manage a credible version of what my classical music guide refers to as "the most popular opera ever written." The answer is an unqualified yes. Rothstein has trimmed this sizable opera down to two hours (with intermission) and given it a scope and pace befitting an intimate venue and a limited budget. The cast fulfills his vision with a palpable sense of comfort and confidence, and the result is a modestly lush, uncluttered take on romantic tragedy and the transcendence of aesthetic passions.
Meghann Schmidt as Mimi gives a solid take on a character whose every light-hearted utterance is tinged with the end to come. Daniel Cardwell's Rodolfo is also a treat, a likeable schlub when hanging with the guys, then a mess once his love for Mimi takes unexpected detours (I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that Puccini seems a bit, shall we say, conflicted about his female characters). Cardwell has just recently received his master's degree, and after noticing that Bryan Boyce as Colline looked young, I consulted the production notes and learned that he's a college senior. This is no knock on Boyce, who has a strong voice and a good stage presence, but it seems a testament to Rothstein's abilities to mold this young cast into such a cohesive unit.
The very small orchestra, directed by Joseph Schlefke from the piano, takes on Puccini's score by reducing the sonic scope of the proceedings while adding guitar and accordion textures--a taste of the Parisian street musette inserted in the right measure. Another twist is Rothstein's placing the action before and after the Nazi occupation of France. It's a provocative move, and Rothstein evinces wisdom in not overplaying the implications.
Audiences have been responding. Theatre Latté Da sold out the entire run of La Bohème early on, and has added nine performances to match demand. This scaled-down production of this most canonical opera has become one of the early success stories of this year. For a theatergoer with little opera experience but an open mind, such as this critic, it's easy to see why the show has caught on the way it has.
When La Bohème premiered in 1896, the initial critical response was that it pretty much sucked. And they kind of had a point--viewed dispassionately, it's a string of clichés bound together by some gorgeous orchestral music. But who approaches opera dispassionately? When Rodolfo meets Mimi and they spill out their life stories as catalogues of aesthetic delights rather than biographical histories, a sort of fragile beauty comes into being. The harsh light of day is no great shakes, after all, and there's something to be said for holding hands in the dark.