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Stephen Costello as Rodolfo and Ailyn Perez as Mimi [Photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera]
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La Bohème, LA Opera

The Los Angeles opera company ended its 2011-2012 season with Giacomo Puccini’s long-loved La Bohème, in a long-lived production. What is it about this opera that keeps old loves alive?

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

Marcello:Artur Ruciński; Rodolfo:Stephen Costello; Colline:Robert Pomakov; Schaunard:Museop Kim; Benoit:Philip Cokorinos; Mimì:Ailyn Pérez; Musetta: Valentina Fleer; Alcindoro:Philip Cokorinos. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Production: Herbert Ross. Dierector: Gregory A.Fortner. Set Designer: Gerard Howland. Costume designer: Peter J. Hall. Lighting Designer: Daniel Ordower. Choreographer: Peggy Hickey . Associate Conductor/Chorus Master: Grant Gershon.

Above: Stephen Costello as Rodolfo and Ailyn Perez as Mimi

Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera


The Los Angeles production was created by the late movie director Herbert Ross in 1993. But Los Angeles is not alone in succumbing to old love. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011-12 season included Franco Zeffirelli’s La Bohème, created in 1981, famous for its heavily populated (think about 240 bodies) Café Momus scene,which catapulted the opera into the most produced at the Met. And just last month, in May 2012 , Britain’s Royal Opera Company staged an even more ancient La Bohème created by John Copley in 1974.

Copley, the only one of the above producers still alive, was recently interviewed on the subject, and suggested that the basic reason for his production’s survival was that “It’s traditional, and people like it.” Perhaps it’s as simple as all that. All three of these long running productions are essentially technologically free, closely modeled on the clothes, furnishings and cultural aspects of an era that remains highly romanticized after almost two centuries. (The Los Angeles production features views of the unfinished Eiffel Tower.) Likely these romantic visions of Paris are easy to take and easy to understand, in that they present no challenge to new opera goers, and feel as comfortable as old slippers to many who have experienced them before.

Puccini’s libretto was created by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is derived from Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. Murger began publishing a series of loosely knit scenes of Bohemian life by that title in 1845. They were not particularly successful until he combined some of them into a play in 1849. Subsequently they were revised and turned into a novel called La vie bohème. A Parisian “Bohemian”, himself, Murger seems not to have been a very organized fellow. In his novel Mimì dies alone at a hospital. In his play she dies on stage. Puccini’s La Bohème followed the stage play, while at the same time, he and his librettists denied it because the play was copyrighted. Puccini’s opera premiered in 1896. The following year another La Bohème premiered - this by Ruggero Leoncavallo, composer of Pagliacci. The latter work, which first gave Puccini’s opera some competition, is (although Leoncavallo’s Mimì also dies in Rodolfo’s attic) a far less romantic tale, and soon after fell from grace.

The Los Angeles opera assembled a young and handsome cast featuring married couple Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello as Mimì and the poet Rodolfo. This was Costello’s Los Angeles debut, though both are well known to San Diego opera lovers. Both too, are Richard Tucker award winners, and both now have burgeoning European careers. Costello has appeared at the Met and at Glyndebourne.

3605-lbhm3104.gifValentina Fleer as Musetta and Philip Cokorinos as Alcindoro

Pérez recently debuted at Convent Garden and at La Scala. Pérez is a particularly engaging and intelligent soprano, who is able to reflect emotions in her voice. Her sweet, coy Mimì suited the romantic setting. I’ve seen and heard Costello clear tenor many times, but at the May 26th performance I attended, his voice seemed somewhat strained and his Rodolfo did not catch fire. There was fire enough to go around, however, in baritone Artur Ruciński’s well sung Marcello, and in Valentina Fleer’s high strung and amusing Musetta. Both artists were debuting with the company. Museop Kim’s bright baritone made for an entertaining Schaunard. But a major flaw in direction had bass Robert Pomakov, the philosopher, Colline, pick up his overcoat, leave the attic in which Mimì was dying and stand on a street corner to sing “addio vecchio zimarra” his touching farewell to the garment he is sacrificing to buy medicine for Mimi. The meaning was totally lost. Though conductor Patrick Summers, also debuting with the company, set some tempos a bit slowly, Musetta’s waltz, for example, he allowed the orchestra to sing Puccini’s score as romantically as did his vocal artists. And that’s good. It’s what makes Puccini’s operas so emotionally involving and intense.

3607-LBHM2146-1.gifLeft to right: Robert Pomakov as Colline, Ailyn Perez as Mimi, Stephen Costello as Rodolfo, Museop Kim as Schaunard and Artur Rucinski as Marcello

For all the romanticism and verisimilitude of the costumes and set, the bohemian’s attic, though elevated, was small and upstage. It diminished the size of the singers and of their voices. Ross was a movie director. Perhaps filming into the attic would have created a more striking effect.

Nevertheless, at its conclusion, this La Bohème like thousands before it, had the gala sold out audience, standing and cheering.

And as usual, I had cried.

Estelle Gilson

Click here for a media slideshow.

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