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La Bohème returns to the stage with LA Opera run

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Monday, May 21, 2012, at 08:05AM
Robert Millard for LA Opera

Stephen Costello as Rodolfo and Ailyn Perez as Mimi.

Promise them anything but give ‘em … “La Bohème!” Isn’t that how it works? A theater with this title on its marquee gets sold to the walls.

And so it is with the current edition of Puccini’s tuneful romantic comedy-turned-weepie, courtesy of L.A. Opera. Only this time you can leave the Kleenex at home, despite some sterling voices on display.

As was the case at the 1993 premiere of Herbert Ross’s production – and in many revivals since then -- physical distance stymied the composer’s intentions. What he created in his rambunctious-to-sweetly ardent score was an up-close sense of the impoverished but fun-loving Bohemians. What Ross gave us was generic relationships seen from far away.

I couldn’t then, and can’t now, make any sense of how a little two-story dollhouse set far back on the stage and occupying just a quarter of the proscenium space could work. It was nothing but bizarre to see the characters cavorting in a tiny garret so distant from the audience.

No matter if this cast had pulled us into the starving artists’ lives with their portrayals– as Puccini intended – there could be little return under these circumstances, namely Gerard Howland’s set design, carried out according to Ross’s concept. Certainly the current director, Gregory Fortner, didn’t do much to salvage things, nor did he help with the individual enactments.

He even took away the Model-T that chauffeured Musetta to the Café Momus, and further obscured her entrance. And in the last act, with lots of sick-girl-dying drama he shelved the action, again, to the faraway garret cubicle.

In a previous revival Angela Gheorghiu put her imprint on the scene by expiring not in the garret but on the rooftop closer to the stage front in a chaise lounge. She knew her business, even when the director didn’t!

The whole point is to come toward us, not retreat.

What saved the show was the singing. Stephen Costello, the Rodolfo, has that rarest of tenors: a voice highly focused, naturally produced, striking in its projection, unforced, flexible, vibrant and, yes, just beautiful.

Ailyn Pérez, as Mimì, unleashed a glorious, blooming top, with somewhat less presence in the middle. The couple’s amiable cohorts enjoyed the excellent vocalism of Janai Brugger (Musetta), Artur Rucinski (Marcello), Robert Pomakov (Colline), Museop Kim (Schaunard).

Sadly, though, the portrayals were routine: without urgency or spontaneity or personalization.

A big part of that problem belongs to conductor Patrick Summers, whose poor rapport with the stage did not provide an orchestral pulse for the singers. Somehow he didn’t sweep them up in Puccini’s eminently buoyant/poignant music drama.

The opera runs until June 2. Click here for tickets or more information.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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