It used to be the “ABC operas” — Aida, Bohème and Carmen — but in recent years, La bohème has become the undisputed heavyweight champ of the opera world. It has sent its roots deep into popular culture: There’s Jonathan Larsen’s Rent, of course, and Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway Bohème. Andrew Lloyd Webber is often said to channel Puccini. In Moonstruck, Cher, as Loretta Castorini, attends Bohème with Nicolas Cage’s Ronny Cammareri, and by the third act she’s fallen under its spell. The no-nonsense Loretta could well identify with Mimi — like her, a hardworking, pragmatic young woman. “I mean, she was coughing her brains out, and still she had to keep singing!” Felix Unger, the persnickety half of television’s Odd Couple, had much the same idea. His brainstorm for collectible trading cards: “Great Moments in Opera. Mimi dies!”
For opera companies, Bohème’s enormous popularity is both blessing and curse. Older operagoers, who have seen their favorite operas repeatedly and are urban companies’ most reliable patrons, are often proprietary about Bohème down to the smallest detail; by contrast, some hard-core opera lovers are exasperated at the thought of yet another me-too Bohème, as are younger audience members seeking a fresher dramatic experience. A well-staged Bohème has an emotional sweep that is all but irresistible to anyone has ever been young and in love, but when an opera company revives a traditional staging again and again, or unveils a new production that reshapes old ideas, it proves the contentions of opera’s advocates and detractors alike: This is an art form that provides a sublime, multidimensional experience — high art for people with high incomes who think the best art is antique and imported from Europe.
A new and much-discussed version of La bohéme — co-produced by Detroit Lyric Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, and Spoleto Festival USA — was first seen in April 2022 in Detroit. This co-commission challenged the highly creative and much-discussed young director Yuval Sharon not only to breathe new life into an old warhorse, but also to find a positive, hopeful way to keynote the reopening of an opera house after a pandemic of a devastating and often fatal respiratory illness…with an opera about a woman dying of a respiratory illness. By presenting the opera’s four acts in reverse order, Sharon shows us first the tragic end of a love story and then explores, retrospectively, how it evolved — concluding with the moment when Mimi and Rodolfo discover the sudden, glorious fullness of their onrushing love. In designer John Conklin’s powerfully spare set, dramatically lit by John Torres, Mimi and Rodolfo end the opera standing confidently on a steeply raked stage. They seem transfigured, mythic, like a monument to the possibilities of young love. They are poised to make their way down to the Café Momus for what will be the best night of their lives. In this moment they sing the production’s final notes on the word “amor.”
There are precedents for staging love stories in reverse order, and the device is often illuminating. In Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, life disappoints a writer who cannot live up to his youthful expectations, yet his disappointments are rendered with sympathetic affection. In Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, the backward sequence of romantic pairing is viewed almost clinically. In Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, nostalgia is all — a sense of what once was and what might have been. Sharon gives us all these elements to varying degrees. He leaves us with a sense that love is worth the risk even when it wounds us.
The music in this production is almost entirely intact, running about one hundred minutes without interruption. As Sharon observes in a program note, the opera’s musical and dramatic structure lend themselves to reordering: the four acts are self-contained vignettes, and the Puccini’s cyclical motifs seem to culminate when the first act comes last, rather than fragmenting as time goes on. A discrete first-act edit removes the boyos’ diddling of their landlord, a cut that seemed questionable to this observer since it is an illuminating bit of business — funny on its surface, but actually a nasty prank that casts light on the roommates’ fecklessness. An addition is a character called The Wanderer, who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, setting the scene and reminding us that things could have turned out differently. The commentary is needless and awkward, since the action is clear and The Wanderer is a surrogate for the drama’s narrator, Henri Murger, who already has a surrogate: Rodolfo.
In other respects, Sharon pushes Puccini closer to his source, Murger’s Scenes de la vie bohème, a book that is not uncritical of the four roommates. It casts a cold eye on the Paris of the 1840s and ‘50s, when Rodolfo and his pals, from securely middle-class backgrounds, could go slumming as artistic poseurs while Musetta and Mimi found ways to support themselves — Mimi in a factory, Musetta as a sex worker. They were the pioneers early in the age of industrialization, daring to seek work outside home, in the city. As always, Puccini’s evocation of the joys and pains of romance between these mismatched urbanites is peerless — but then, he consistently puts romantic love above all. Murger’s observations are more like those in Orwell’s gritty, self-critical Down and Out in Paris and London, published eighty years later. So, for that matter, are those of Puccini’s librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa: While Rodolfo pretentiously declares “I am a poet…I live!”, It is Mimi who expresses a truly poetic sensibility, describing how she draws inspiration from the flowers and the sky outside her window.
I made my own passage from the countryside of northwest Connecticut to central Philadelphia for the final performance in Opera Philadelphia’s run of this production on Sunday, May 7. Aboard Amtrak I spoke with an opera enthusiast who did an eye-roll when I said I was en route to a performance of Bohème. He’d seen it so many times that he’d even left a well-cast dress-rehearsal at La Scala after twenty minutes. “After that I vowed, when it comes to La bohème, never again,” he said. But when I described what I’d read and heard about Sharon’s version, he seemed receptive — more so than the diehards I encountered in pre-performance commentary at the Academy of Music, the rococo gilt-and-maroon hall with excellent acoustics that Opera Philadelphia calls home. Most of the patrons in this group were silver-haired and skeptical. Some were as hostile as good manners would allow. But the end of the performance, during an enthusiastic ovation, no dissenters were evident. Were they won over? I think so.
Musically, this was an extremely strong performance; dramatically, the cast was sometimes youthfully overeager, but always fully engaged. Opera Philadelphia benefits from being the home-team opera company in a town that also hosts the Fabulous Philadelphians, the Academy of Vocal Arts, and the Curtis Institute. These assets make it a great place to hear traditional big-city opera with star-quality voices early in their careers. In this case, the cast had no weaknesses: Kara Goodrich, as Mimi, had lyric, liquid tone and reserves of power suggesting she could venture further into lyrico spinto territory. Her phrasing lacked reticence, but that was in line with her characterization; she took charge of an unusually strong third act, more prominent here because of the rearranged sequence, sailing effortlessly through the rigors of “Addio senza rancor” and clearly expressing Mimi’s ambivalence. Her Rodolfo, tenor Joshua Blue, possesses a lyric instrument loaded with romantic appeal; as Musetta, Melissa Joseph was vocally strong and convincingly worldly — blasé when she wanted to be, concerned when she had to be. Adam Lau, a true basso, sang sumptuously as Colline, deploying an instrument that keeps its gorgeous gleam into its lowest reaches. I found myself wondering how he’d sound in some other roles: the Inquisitor? Sparafucile? Boris?
More importantly, perhaps, this performance reflected Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to the future of opera as an art form for everyone in its community and beyond. The Company’s mission statement begins with this sentence: “Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century.” This includes not just providing an artistic home for innovators such as Yuval Sharon, but also an extremely bold, uncompromising commitment to racial equity and community relevance. Another excerpt: “We commit to continuing the work to create an inclusive company culture that aims to be free of discrimination, bigotry, and hate speech. We will work as a community to develop new inclusive anti-oppressive policies that aim to provide solutions to dismantling oppressive and discriminating systems within opera and the world.” Even a traditional favorite like La bohème can be among those solutions when it is presented with the freshness of Sharon’s vision and performed by an ethnically diverse cast who are utterly at home in it, as in this case.
Opera Philadelphia’s upcoming fall season (opening September 21) continues initiatives in traditional and new operas, in the auditorium and online. For information, go to http://operaphila.org.