Los Angeles saw the first U.S. performance of Giacomo Puccini’s snow-dusted weeper in 1897 just a year after the young Toscanini led the prima in Turin. LA Opera in its unending, some might say hellbent, quest to engage the company town in the art of the lyric theatre invited film director, former Broadway choreographer and perennial Academy Award nominee Herbert Ross, of Turning Point and Steel Magnolias fame, to stage our latest production of La Bohème way back in 1993.
For its sixth revival down at the Music Center, directing duties have now been passed to Peter Kazaras, who had a distinguished career as a character tenor and now leads the opera program at UCLA. For one of the few operas in the repertoire that is practically bulletproof, Mr. Ross’s production nonetheless featured a staging far too fussy in spots for its own good. Mr. Kazaras has now gratefully streamlined it as best he could within the confines (literally) of the sets.
In spite of the fact that Bohème is an ensemble opera it does have a slight “boys vs. girls” feeling about it and last night the girls won. In spades. In her LA Opera debut, conductor Speranza Scappucci who led a spirited performance that highlighted the verve and poignancy of the score in equal parts. In possibly one of the busiest and most picturesque orchestrations in the repertoire she kept the orchestra constantly alert and graceful. f she seemed to lack that preternatural talent for anticipating a singer’s every breath she none the less proved an able accompanist to a fresh cast still wet behind their ears and some even singing roles for the first time.
The most important of these debuts was Georgian soprano, and LA Opera favorite daughter Nino Machaidze in her first Mimi. For a character suffering the last stages of tuberculosis the composer certainly calls for a soprano with full command of her respiratory functions. Ms. Machaidze has made her name in lyric coloratura roles and just only recently started branching out past Violetta and Juliette into Luisa Miller and now Puccini’s doomed seamstress.
Her voice carries easily into the auditorium at any decibel level with a dark core which grandly and vibrantly opens on the top. She nailed all the imposing climaxes just as adeptly as she dazzled in the quiet moments. Her acting was touching and she had a lovely moment where she put a scarf on Rodolfo as they were leaving the garrett that showed her love already in a quiet way. I walked into the theater concerned that Mimi might be pushing things too fast. I left in hopeful anticipation of her first Tosca.
I had not seen the last revival of this production in 2012 when Janai Brugger first sang Musetta but my thanks to whomever engaged her again. Flaunting one of the most luscious and seductive voices it has ever been my pleasure to hear, Ms. Brugger tore up the stage at the Cafè Momus in Act II with a performance that should easily assure her gainful employment for the rest of her career. In “Quando m’en vo” she made easy work of the composer’s many markings, never letting the phrases lose their musical shape. Her stage business with the waiters was so hilarious and over the top for a moment I feared we were going to get a Hello, Dolly! kickline.
The men were all good but really couldn’t keep up with their brilliant female colleagues. Nicholas Brownlee was generally wonderful as Colline and made a touching farewell to his coat in the last act; toward the end I realized I couldn’t recall the last time he had taken a breath. The most excellent Kihun Yoon was the Schaunard after his recent success here as Sharpless in Butterfly. It’s an especially rich voice and his was luxury casting filling out the ensemble.
Our Marcello was Giorgio Caoduro and he’s a lithe, handsome charmer who moved well about the stage. He has a warm natural baritone of some character and blended especially well with Rodolfo in the opening duet of Act IV making it a special moment in spite of an odd staging choice.
Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang swept the Operalia competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why after his performance as Rodolfo. He has the conversational quality in his singing necessary for a Puccini specialist and his voice has a little grain in it which makes it instantly recognizable. His phrasing is also wonderfully expansive when called upon at the big moments. Especially for someone of his young years. He was also very touching in Act III at the Barrier d’Enfer when he was comforting Mimi. That said I have a feeling his “Che gelida manina” in Act I might have gone a tad easier if the director hadn’t banished both he and Ms. Machaidze to their collective knees in the garret.
Now, about the improvements on Mr. Ross’ original mounting by Mr. Kazaras: I saw this production last in 2004 and although Mr. Ross had long since gone to his reward his ideas were still with us. Moving the time of the staging forward 50-some years to precisely 1888 gives the Bohemian’s garrett apartment a view of the half constructed Tour Eiffel and to see its further progress in the spring. It also allows for the introduction of bicycles into the proceedings as well as Musetta and Alcindoro’s Act II entrance in a very elegant horseless carriage (i.e. motorcar.) Happily swept away is the entire contrivance of the landlord Benoit and his wife as “visible” downstairs neighbors of the Bohemian quartet and their intrusive pantomimes during Act I which were an unnecessary distraction.
Odd was Mr. Ross’s opening Act IV in front of the painted scrim used for the big reveal of the Cafè Momus scene in Act II with Rodolfo and Marcello having “visions” of their lost loves through said scrim during the duet ‘O Mimi, tu piu non torni’. It doesn’t really work and it’s still with us. Act III is played on split levels with Rodolfo and Mimi in the street and Musetta and Marcello in a second story apartment above the tavern for the opening (having sexy time Rear Window style at curtain up) and then during the great quartet. That does work until Musetta drops her valise out of the window to the sidewalk below eliciting laughter from the audience at a superbly timed bit of stage business but obliterating the musical climax of the act.
I also have to strenuously object to Marcello “motor-boating” Musetta upon their reunion in Act II. I don’t care how big a laugh it gets, it’s wrong for the period.
Peter J. Hall’s costumes once again tip the favor to the ladies with naturally discreet ensembles for Mimi (a forest green dress for Act III was especially flattering) and of course a lot of bright colors and sparkle for Musetta. The men were mostly in grays and browns which makes them sadly blend into the relentlessly gray sets of Gerard Howland on which I will not waste any further space. They do, however, give an excellent backdrop to Duane Schuler’s very skillful lighting design.
Yet there’s an absolutely magnificent moment at the end of Act I where Rodolfo and Mimi have found their way down front, the garrett and side buildings pull back out of view, and out pops the biggest Disney moon you’ve ever seen as stage fog creeps across the floor and the lovers sing their final “Amor’s.” Those hoping to hear Puccini’s gentle postlude will strain over the mountainous applause as the curtain falls. That, my friends, is Hollywood.
Photo: Ken Howard/LA Opera