'La bohème:' Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Works Wonders with Puccini’s Masterpiece
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Puccini’s masterpiece was culled in part from Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la vie de bohème;” and indeed, OTSL, from set design to execution and singing, sets the audience in the Latin Quarter in Paris, though given this opera deals with impoverished artists and philosophers, it’s a rougher side of life in which we find ourselves.
The piece opens within a garrett overlooking the city. Rodolfo, played marvelously by Andrew Haji, burns his manuscript in order to keep the inevitably returning chill from the space in which he and his fellow-artists are shivering. By the grace of sudden luck, money is found and a banquet appears, replete with wine, conversations about art and women, and the quartet of bohemians decides to head out to Cafe Momos for a debauch.
Enter Mimì, the long-suffering neighbor of Rodolfo. Mimì is played magnificently by the soprano Hae Ji Chang. She detains Rodolfo for a tender scene wherein the two discover the oldest form of meaning on earth, that of love. Rodolfo’s friends call out to him from the stairwell and hurry him to join them. Mimì suffers from tuberculosis and has developed a fierce cough that, in the end, determines her fate.
Marcello, played exquisitely by Anthony Clark Evans, is a painter who runs into his old paramour, Musetta, at the cafe. She is accompanied by an “old goat” as the libretto has it, as the soprano Lauren Michelle—a show-stealer—plays the gold-digging “muse” who reignites the old flame with the painter, much to their mutual difficulties later in the opera. It is at Cafe Momos—which OTSL designs to take on a late 19th century feel, with lights and manic activity and talk—that Rodolfo presents a bonnet to Mimì, a gift that bears talismanic significance within Puccini’s story of struggle and failed love.
From rent-dodging to spoiled loves to final death, “La bohème” is a perfect introduction to the lives of truly struggling artists. One feels, given the performance is so powerful, a bit uneasy sitting in a suit and sipping drinks under the tents at the lovely grounds around Webster Groves. However, one moves on, and understands that “La bohème” isn’t recommending poverty, though certainly poverty plays an important role in the opera. It is an ethical subtext that runs throughout the opera that struck me, at least.
The four artists in the Latin quarter lose their way, as their lovers also lose their way. Take Colline, played ingeniously by Bradley Smoak, a sincere and dedicated philosopher who has little time to stray from his muse, the art of thinking and working day by day. There is Shaunard, too, an artist who completes the quartet, played beautifully by Sean Michael Plumb. Think of the Musketeers and of their duties to one another, and there you’ll get what I mean. One can smell the paint and ink from one’s seat at OTSL, so brilliant is the entire show.
I have been chastised in the past for spoilers in light of operas, and so, I will not do that again. Suffice it to say that if you are wanting a taste, indeed a feast for your eyes and ears, go and see “La bohème” this season. I found myself laughing and even getting that old lump in the throat. And as a reminder to those uninitiated with operas, the “plots” are often paper-thin things that work because brilliant singers and performers and set designers, etc., come together to make a seamless work that exists for the betterment of all involved. This is first-rate opera done in English, and from the orchestra to the lights and songs, “La bohème” is perfection.
Performances of “La bohéme” will be running through June 25