Barrie Kosky’s brilliant production of La bohème at the LA Opera

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 22.9.2019. (JRo)

La bohème at the LA Opera. Photo credit: Cory Weaver.

Director – Barrie Kosky
Sets – Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes – Victoria Behr
Original Lighting – Alessandro Carletti
Chorus Director – Grant Gershon
Artistic Director, LA Children’s Chorus – Fernando Malvar-Ruiz
Associate Director – Katharina Fritsch
Associate Lighting – Marco Philipp

Rodolfo – Saimir Pirgu
Mimì – Marina Costa-Jackson
Marcello – Kihun Yoon
Musetta – Erica Petrocelli
Colline – Nicholas Brownlee
Schaunard – Michael J. Hawk
Alcindoro – Patrick Blackwell
Parpignol – Robert Stahley
Prune Seller – Todd Strange
Custom House Officer – Reid Bruton
Sergeant – Steve Pence

By setting La bohème circa 1900, Barrie Kosky succeeds brilliantly in shining a light on the modernity of Puccini’s vision. His production, which hails from the Komische Oper Berlin, places the bohemians in loft-like digs in an industrialized Paris. The result is nothing short of revelatory: the story becomes personal to our time by shelving sentimentality and nostalgia and creating an honest exploration of youth, its yearning for experience and the lessons learned when, inevitably, sorrow strikes.

The Act I garret was set on a small riser with the entire expanse of the Chandler stage in view. An iron stove, a chair, a daguerreotype camera on a tripod (Kosky has swapped the painter’s trade for that of photographer – another inspired idea) and a small scaffolding for hanging Marcello’s artistic backdrops were all that furnished the flat. Alessandro Carletti’s sensitive and dramatic lighting succeeded in creating intimacy and architectural structure by highlighting the area described by the riser and its furnishings. The minimal set design of Rufus Didwiszus in neutral greys and browns established the austerity of the artists’ lives and allowed their personalities and antics to become the focal point of the drama without needless distraction.

With Beckett-like timing, a trap door opened in the floor of the bohemians’ quarters and allowed a disembodied head to poke up, followed by the body of any entering resident or guest. This gave the illusion of stairs climbed to the top. The difficulty of entering this attic perch hammered home the notion that youth will make do with any kind of habitable living quarters when the desire for city life is strong. I couldn’t help but think of my long-ago industrial loft days in Tribeca or the crowded arrangements of today’s youth in Brooklyn or LA.

Victoria Behr’s costumes, which felt period and contemporary at the same time, decked out the bohemians in stripes and plaids – a comic touch which, coupled with the set and lighting, added a hint of music hall madness to their antics.

Surprisingly, it was Mimì in her schoolgirl plaid and shaggy haircut who felt the most contemporary of the characters. Normally seen as a victim of illness and circumstance – an outsider to the bohemian band of merry pranksters – Mimì was transformed into a member of the men’s club by dint of her determination not to be undone by her disease and to live fully. Marina Costa-Jackson, with her large eyes and toothy smile, reminded me of Lesley Caron as Gigi – certainly a marvelous model for a spirited French girl. Flirtatious yet appropriately demure, curious, insightful and full of fun, this was a Mimì one could believe might pique the interest of a dynamic band of artists or succumb to the attentions of a Viscount.

In the exhilarating Christmas Eve opening of Act II, the hawkers and revelers amassed at the edge of the stage to deliver a rousing chorus of welcome. Behind them a black and white photomural panorama of Paris (likely by the flâneur and photographer of early twentieth-century Paris, Eugene Atget) set the scene. When Mimì and Rodolfo joined Marcello, Colline and Schaunard at Café Momus on a revolving platform filled with tables and chairs, potted plants and street lamps, the patrons were a composite of Latin Quarter characters. Whores, showgirls, soldiers, opium smokers, transvestites, a bearded lady and clowns shared the café with nuns, swells in top hats, waiters and a band of children dressed in black clown costumes.

The only element missing in this marvelous production was the creeping sense of winter’s chill and its reminder of the grim reality of poverty. Though the principals sang about the cold, the depiction was graphically vague. Colline’s insistence on buying an overcoat is lost in the commotion of the crowd where everyone appears to live in perpetual autumn. Act III’s snow-laced cold was absent from the bare stage, though another beautiful Atget backdrop of a Paris street stood in for the Barrière d’Enfer.

James Conlon and the LAO Orchestra made sure that Puccini’s atmospheric music reflected the winter chill. The orchestra was magnificent, supplying the wash of romanticism that envelops the lovers, drawing out every ounce of irony, emotion and color from the music with tantalizing freshness.

Costa-Jackson was a winning and expressive Mimì. Saimir Pirgu’s Rodolfo had a quiet assurance in the love scenes and grew more passionate in his torment, singing with fierce conviction. Kihun Yoon as Marcello was at ease with both the comedy and drama of the opera and sang with a warm, sensuous tone, while Erica Petrocelli’s Musetta was appropriately outrageous and compassionate.

Nicholas Brownlee proved once again that he is an asset to LAO with his mastery of even the smallest roles. His Act IV lament over selling his overcoat – a coat that ‘held in its pockets poets and philosophers’ – was as moving as any aria in opera. Completing the quartet of male bohemians, Michael J. Hawk was delightful as the musician, Schaunard. Inexplicably absent was the character of the landlord, Benoit, sung mockingly by Colline (unless it was Schaunard doing the honors – very confusing indeed). Fortunately, Alcindoro, the duped lover of Musetta, was on hand in the person of Patrick Blackwell, as was Robert Stahley as Parpignol, bedecked with horns and costumed as the god of satire, poets and writers, Momus.

The tragic end of Puccini’s tale was startling in its honesty. Mimì, sitting in the chair in Rodolfo’s garret after posing for a picture, slumps over: under a stark spotlight, we witness the reality of death, not only for the bohemians but for the audience as well.

Jane Rosenberg

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