United States Puccini, La bohème: LA Opera, Speranza Scappucci (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 14.5.2016. (JRo)
Production: Herbert Ross
Director: Peter Kazaras
Scenery Designer: Gerard Howland
Costume Designer: Peter J. Hall
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Mimi: Nino Machaidze
Rodolfo: Mario Chang
Marcello: Giorgio Caoduro
Colline: Nicholas Brownlee
Musetta: Janai Brugger
Schaunard: Kihun Yoon
Benoit/Alcindoro: Philip Cokorinos
With its poignant narrative of struggling Bohemians in 19th-century Paris and a score of lyric beauty rife with atmosphere and soaring melodies, La bohème can melt even the hardest hearts and entertain the most demanding audiences. The LA Opera certainly thinks so and has now mounted the Herbert Ross production for the seventh time since its debut in 1993. Though one could wish for a new staging, the cast on opening night offered a believable band of exuberant youths; and with Nino Machaidze in the role of Mimi, all was right with the world of the Latin Quarter.
The four male Bohemians were outgunned by Machaidze and Janai Brugger as the flamboyant Musetta, though I must add that their antics, whether cavorting at Café Momus, dancing a jig, or cooking a herring, had an authentic flavor of youth, not always in evidence in some casts. With the addition of conductor Speranza Scappucci, who illuminated both the symphonic nature of the score and the impressionistic colors of the piece, it was the women’s night to shine.
Machaidze’s Mimi was more enthusiastic than shy, but within that portrayal, she found a depth to Mimi’s yearning for love in the face of poverty and her worsening illness. Her singing was powerful and assured, holding the stage and our attention even in the bustling scene centered around the Bohemian’s table at Café Momus. Brugger as Musetta was a volcano of sexuality. The direction and choreography allows for some over-the-top, audacious behavior and Brugger went the distance, revealing to Los Angeles audiences a singer of many gifts: from comic, compassionate, and willful as Musetta to demure and stoic as Pamina in LAO’s The Magic Flute of 2013.
The band of Bohemians had their work cut out for them in Act I. Dealing with Ross’s awkward and dimly lit two-story set is a challenge for any singer. Voices were swallowed by the increased distance from the audience, and lighting was so poor that it was nearly impossible to have a clear impression of the singers. The fact that Mario Chang (Rodolfo), Giorgio Caoduro (Marcello), Nicholas Brownlee (Colline), and Kihun Yoon (Schaunard) offered a convincing portrayal of high-spirited youths was to their credit. Once away from the claustrophobic garret of the first act, the singing took off. Chang, though weak in his opening aria, “Che gelida manina” (“Your tiny hand is frozen”), grew in strength with his Act III duet when he and Mimi promise to stay together until the spring.
Caoduro was a handsome, playful Marcello, the painter, and a nice comic match for Brugger’s Musetta. Brownlee as the philosopher/poet and Yoon as the musician were well suited to their roles as compatriots. The LA Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus were dynamic in the Act II opening scene, which gaily depicts Parisian street life, and throughout the act’s boisterous café scene.
Puccini’s comic touches heighten the unfolding drama, revealing the preciousness of life and the fleeting nature of youth. The moments of humor help create an existential opera that acknowledges the absurdity of our desperate struggle for love, fidelity, and success as punctuated by the ending – the tragedy of Mimi’s death. As the Bohemians gather around her insensate body, we join them in the mutual understanding of what it means to be human.