“Opera as theater” has been a major buzz phrase for the last several decades. It refers to the idea of doing away with all the exaggerated gestures and stereotypical posing that had made opera an object of ridicule. Theatre Latte Da’s La Boheme embodies that ideal. Even with reduced forces, like a minimal chorus, the production beautifully communicates the tragedy of Puccini’s young bohemians.
This production at the Southern Theater is a remounting of a show originally staged in 2005 at the Loring Playhouse. I did not see the original, but I can't imagine that the larger Southern doesn’t improve the staging and provide more resonant acoustics.
Michael Hoover’s set makes innovative use of the space, creating a sumptuous environment in which the story can unfold. This was unmistakably Paris, but not the Paris of travelogues—the Paris of dreams.
Peter Rothstein’s direction follows the same principle. The action is essentially naturalistic, but not limited by reality. It is realism, but an enhanced, romanticized realism. The character’s actions are those of normal human beings, but with a heightened theatricality and passion that allowed my heart to soar. At its best, such emotional flights are what opera can inspire better than any other art form.
Music director Joseph Schlefke has re-orchestrated the opera for piano, guitar, accordion, flute/clarinet and violin. It is hard not to miss the lush Puccini orchestra, but this unique sound contributes to the creation of the unique environment.
Successful as this production is, it makes painfully clear just how difficult it is to balance operatic singing with naturalistic acting. In the opening scene, the poet Rodolfo (tenor James Howes) and the painter Marcello (baritone Nathan Brian) are the embodiment of young bohemians. They have fresh, natural voices and cavort about the stage with antic enthusiasm. Their musical performances are not entirely suave or polished, and they tend to sing unsubtly loud throughout, but their vigor and energy sweeps away all reservations and they end up creating utterly believable characters.
When Mimi (soprano Meghann Schmidt) enters, she seems part of another production altogether. Hers is a voice of true elegance and refinement, but it seemed mannered by comparison. However, in the tragic scenes of Acts Three and Four, she came into her own, her rich instrument taking the drama to a whole other level. Her death scene actually moved me to tears. Howes, on the other hand, was in over his head at this point, both vocally and emotionally. It’s hard to have it all.
There is only one major misstep in the production. Rothstein moves the time period from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, which is not really significant (this story of young love is universal) until he introduces a Nazi element. This was an unnecessary addition that detracted from the real story. For instance, baritone Bryan Boyce's moving performance of Colline's coat aria was upstaged by the presence of a Star of David on the lapel. The fact that there was no real payoff for the political intrusions just made them all the more extraneous.
Rothstein’s direction masterfully balances the rapidly shifting moods of comedy and tragedy. The bohemians Howes, Brian, and Boyce, along with bass Roy Kallemeyn as the musician Schaunard, made a strong vocal quartet as well as a genuinely funny comic team. Mention must also be made of soprano Jill Sandager, who plays an exceptional Musetta, with a sexy voice and persona to match.
Clearly, the dramatic (and musical) values of this production were heightened by the intimacy of the Southern Theater. I look forward to the day when Rothstein has a large company and a big budget at his disposal to work his magic writ large.
La Boheme plays through November 18 at the Southern Theater.