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Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008

Twentieth-Century La Bohème

Classical Review

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A friend said to me recently, “I have tickets to La bohème at the Skylight, but after their La traviata last season, I’m not sure I want to go.”  For anyone else with concerns about standard opera repertory at the Skylight, be assured that the new production of La bohème, which opened last weekend, is not a wild re-conception of the musical score or libretto to Puccini’s opera.
 Director Bill Theisen, artistic director at the Skylight, placed the opera in 1930s Paris rather than the1830s, a gentle change. Rick Rasmussen’s designs are lovely, especially the architectural look of the garret. Any connection to Brassaï’s 1930s Parisian photographs, which Theisen cites as the production inspiration, is subdued. I could quibble with various points of direction, but the emotion built into the libretto and Puccini’s score generally comes through.

Alicia Berneche is a sympathetic and appropriately coquettish Mimi, though her light voice was not made for Puccini's sustained melodies. Brandon Wood, as Rodolfo, has a good lyric voice that is a work in progress. He is not a natural actor. It was a stretch to believe him to be a dreamy, impulsive poet. Michael Mayes has the voice, look and temperament to match the hot blooded Marcello. Danielle Hermon Wood’s Musetta was spirited and well-sung. Christopher Clayton’s Schaunard warmed up after some pressed singing early on to handsome and easy sound in the last act. Bass Thomas Forde’s youthful voice was a little shy of depth in filling out the character of Colline.

Puccini’s original orchestration is a big factor in making us believe that Mimi and Rodolpho could fall deeply in love so quickly. The Skylight’s reduced orchestration, particularly the small string section, undermines this effect. With so few players any inexactness is also quite exposed, apparent here and there. Even on its own terms, there was one avoidable problem with the performance: interpolating non-Bohème interludes during scene changes, violating the opera’s musical whole and flow by introducing unrelated material. It would have been far better to sit in silence for a few minutes in half-light, the common opera company practice.