Puccini’s Bohemians Move to the 1930s

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Cincinnati Opera, Natascha Metherell (director) / Louis Langrée (conductor), Aronoff Center for the Arts, Cincinnati, OH. 15.6.2017. (RDA)

Cincinnati Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème (Photo: Philip Groshong)
Cincinnati Opera’s production of Puccini’s La bohème (c) Philip Groshong


Stage Director – Natascha Metherell
Scenic & Costume – Designer Isabella Bywater
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Hair & Make-up – Designer James Geier
Chorus Master – Henri Venanzi


Mimì – Nicole Cabell
Musetta – Jessica Rivera
Rodolfo – Sean Panikkar
Marcello – Rodion Pogossov
Colline – Nathan Stark
Schaunard – Edward Nelson
Benoit/Alcindoro – Marco Nisticò

Both inveterate opera fans and the unitiated alike would be impressed by the lovely singing of soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Sean Panikkar in Cincinnati Opera’s latest iteration of Puccini’s La bohème. Also of note: the antics of the quartet of bohemians that provided the audience with as much humor as can be expected, in an opera based on the novel Vie de bohème by French writer Henri Murger.

In La bohème there are neither bad guys, nor hard-hearted gals, just plenty of passion and heartbreak in 1840’s Paris, and librettists Illica and Giacosa deliver a “now feel happy/now feel sad” libretto, tailor-made for Puccini’s music.

The story is straightforward: Rodolfo, a struggling writer (Panikkar) and seamstress Mimì (Cabell) encounter each other in an unheated attic after Alcindoro, the landlord (baritone Marco Nisticò) has cut off the electricity. He will restore it when he gets paid for the monthly rent of the run-down quarters shared by Rodolfo and his friend Marcello, a painter (Rodion Pogossov). Tentatively at first, and then impulsively, Mimì and Rodolfo swear to love each other.

It is Christmas Eve, and Marcello is with the musician Schaunard (Edward Nelson) and the philosopher Colline (Nathan Stark), at the  Café Momus. The two lovers soon join them, but the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of Marcello’s ex, Musetta (Jessica Rivera) who makes a grand entrance in the arms of Alcindoro (Marco Nisticò), her sugar daddy du jour.

After the fun and games of Act I are over, the action resumes in winter, a year later. Mimì and Rodolfo have parted company because of her flirtatiousness (says he) and his jealousy (says she). The real reason is that she is wasting away due to an unnamed disease and Rodolfo is terrified to lose her.

While Marcello and Musetta hurl insults at each other, Mimì and Rodolfo vow to stay together until spring comes. But spring comes and they again break up, and it is only at the end of the opera that Mimì returns to die in Rodolfo’s arms.

The production – the same one seen in Cincinnati a few years ago – has a set that evokes a black-and-white Paris movie from the 1930’s, a backdrop for the mostly black-and-grey palette of the cast costumes. An 1896 unabashedly romantic opera, originally conceived in the 1840’s Paris of Murger’s novel, could be an uncomfortable fit into a later era, but as conceived by the original director Jonathan Miller, the concept works. With directing honors this time around, Natascha Metherell does a splendid job of with the principals and chorus on a two-tiered set where space is at a premium. She makes things work while keeping everyone on stage away from operatic posturing.

Making his company debut, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Louis Langrée elicited terrific playing from the musicians, but many ragged moments – coordination and balance between pit and stage were at loggerheads – kept the evening from being a great performance. The choral passages, however, were perfectly sung by Henri Venanzi’s choristers, including the children in the Café Momus scene.

Cabell sang and acted an impassioned Mimì, her big lyric soprano soaring when soaring was needed, most notably in her second act encounters with Marcello, and in the ensuing farewell aria and duet with Rodolfo. Panikkar was the perfect Rodolfo: good to look at, sincere in his acting, and rock-solid vocally in his big solo moments. Pogossov and his fellow bohemians – the excellent Jessica Rivera, the very fine Edward Nelson (one of the best Schaunard’s I have ever seen), and the splendid Nathan Stark – were a terrific quartet.

Rafael de Acha

Note: A version of this review previously appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

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