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Puccini’s Ode to Starving Artists in Love Soars

Ed Rampell: The opera actually quite sympathetically, acutely illustrates most artists’ inability to support themselves while striving to develop their talent, create and make a name for themselves.
la boheme

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello and Janal Brugger as Musetta

LA BOHÈME Opera Review

Based on French novelist/poet Henri Murger’s 1851 work of fiction, Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Bohème is the operatic epitome of the romantic saga of starving, struggling artistes in love. Set, but of course, in Paris (although Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto is counterintuitively sung in Italian), the story, which opens in 1887, is enlivened by Gerard Howland’s peerless Parisian sets and scrims. The garrets, partially completed Eiffel Tower, cafés, etc., are superbly rendered and one of the best things about this production (which looks much the same as LA Opera’s 2012 version of this oldie-but-goodie).

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Mario Chang (Rodolfo) Nina Machaidze (Mimi), Giorgio Caoduro (Marcello) and Janal Brugger (Musetta)

The plot is as skimpy as Musetta’s lingerie presumably is and most of the tale takes place offstage, embroidered in the viewers’ minds, with the onstage elements conjuring storytelling in theatergoers’ imaginations. La Bohème revolves around a group of struggling artists, focusing on the affairs of aspiring dramatist Rodolfo (Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang alternates in the role with Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri) and Mimi (Moldovan soprano Olga Busuioc played the part the night I attended; Georgian - as in Tbilisi, not Atlanta - soprano takes over for the remaining six performances) and of the painter Marcello (Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro) and party girl Musetta (Texan soprano Amanda Woodbury alternates in the role with Illinois soprano Janai Brugger).

The first two acts of this four-acter (presented with one intermission and two lengthy blackouts as scenes are reset onstage) are actually pretty lighthearted and droll. In Act I the four Bohemian artist friends make a monkey out of Benoit (New York bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos, who, in a double role, also plays Alcindoro, a state councilor), as the landlord tries in vain to collect payment for their attic loft. (Hence, I suppose, the derivation of the title Rent, for the Broadway musical that adapted and reset La Bohème in modern Manhattan.)

Rodolfo (Chang actually resembles John Belushi in Animal House) and Mimi, who tries to support herself by making embroidered artificial flowers, have a Nora Ephron-like “cute meet.” Marcello vies with a much richer - and older - competitor (called “a stammering old dotard!”) for alluring, amusing Musetta’s charms at an expertly wrought outdoor Café Momus.

(BTW, it’s interesting how themes attain new meanings: This scene ends with an ultra-patriotic paean to militarism and the French flag, with more tricolors unfurled upon the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage than are probably waved at most Bastille Day celebrations. Placed within the context of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, this “vive la France!” moment achieves a heightened significance. Especially since the first terrorist attack targeted Parisian artists at Charlie Hebdo and the second one was, in part, clearly aimed at the much-vaunted Parisian café society. (After all, there’s nothing religious fanatics hate more than the idea that people are having a good time somewhere.) Interestingly, among the soldiers exulting onstage in this mass scene expertly directed by Peter Kazaras are uniformed troops, including many from France’s Third World colonies, perhaps including Zouaves. These multi-culti armed forces do not seem to be mentioned in the libretto and may be an embellishment of this production, turning Puccini into propaganda in order to do his bit in the “war on terror.” At least, during this outburst of French fever, LA Opera Orchestra managed - unlike Casablanca - to refrain from striking up the band for a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise.”)

Whereas acts one and two are pretty humorous, after the curtain lifted for acts three and four, La Bohème devolved into tragedy. The opera actually quite sympathetically, acutely illustrates most artists’ inability to support themselves while striving to develop their talent, create and make a name for themselves. These Latin Quarter Bohemians often don’t have a quarter - or sous - for a baguette. Rodolfo uses the manuscript of his play as kindling in order to keep warm during the Parisian winter. Likewise, the impoverished wannabe bard is tormented by his failure to earn enough money to keep his garret - and beloved Mimi - warm. Puccini presents a powerful arguments that true artists deserve to be subsidized and for free universal healthcare.

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Mario Chang (Rodolfo) and Nina Machaidze (Mimi), center, with Nicholas Brownlee (Colline) and Kihun Yoon (Schaunard)

(From the “Unabashed Advertisements for Myself” Department: The 2005 screen adaptation of Rent cannily cast the sultry beauty Rosario Dawson as Mimi. Look for my interview with the delightful Dawson, a Bernie Sanders stalwart, in the next issue of The Progressive Magazine.)

Marcello, on the other hand, is troubled by being unable to keep the carnal Musetta in the manner she is accustomed to. The story takes place around the time the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists struggled for recognition against painters of the academy in France, as they sought to take painting beyond realism to a new way of seeing. But Musetta is the type of woman one suspects purchases her lingerie at Victoria’s Secret - using, but of course, a lover’s credit card.

Busuioc’s performance of Musetta’s renowned Act II waltz at Café Momus, “Quando me’n vo soletta per la via,” elicited a well-deserved ovation from the audience. (The number is reminiscent of Maria’s “I Feel Pretty” number in West Side Story, ballyhooing the singer’s own attractiveness.) [Plot Spoiler Alert!] Although as the tear jerker final act becomes one long, drawn out death scene, Musetta proves that while she does enjoy the “finer” things in life, she is more than just a good time girl and has depth, after all.

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Janal Brugger as Musetta

The entire creative team jointly renders a splendid production. Italian Speranza Scappucci conducted LA Opera Orchestra with enthusiastic gesticulations and blonde tresses flying; famed Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel wields the baton during the June 10 and 12 performances.

Lighting designer Duane Schuler, costume designer Peter J. Hall, choreographers Peggy Hickey and John Todd and chorus director Grant Gershon all coalesce under Peter Kazaras’ direction to deliver, along with a gifted cast, a wonderful night at the opera.

BTW, Dear Reader, can anybody LMK if [Plot Spoiler Alert!] Rodolfo’s final exclamation of grief as Mimi expires is where the term “the Screaming Mimis” is derived from? In any case, as in 2012, La Bohème marks the end of LA Opera’s main stage productions for the current season. We’ll have to wait months until the new season starts, which once again makes me I feel like I have a case of the Screaming Mimis.

La Bohème is being performed Sundays May 22, June 5 and June 12 at 2:00 p.m., and May 25, May 28, and June 10 at 7:30 p.m., at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell