By JOHN DeMERS
The irony is clear: the more magnificent the production of Puccini’s La Boheme, the more agonizing it is to watch the story approach its inevitable conclusion. When it comes to the heartbreak and, yes, agony of acclaimed British director John Caird’s new production opening Houston Grand Opera’s season, the whole thing ought to be against some kind of law.
Given a taut, believable story built on characters we actually care about, Caird seems to enjoy every delicious collision of the raucous and the tragic – which Puccini piles into each of his youthful opera’s four acts. In fact, I doubt the funny parts of La Boheme – starving artists in Paris in the late 1800s cavorting, eating and drinking when they get a little money, ducking the landlord looking for rent – have ever seemed funnier. By pulling that off, Caird manages to focus the spotlight even more intensely on the doomed love at the narrative’s core. La Boheme lacks the layers of character, incident and emotion that this director handled so masterfully in launching Les Miserables on an unsuspecting world back in 1985; you might say he brings this new Boheme layers to spare.
In his dramatic mission, Caird gets extraordinary support from the set design by David Farley and the lighting by Michael James Clark, which take the art being created by these very same “bohemians” in Paris at the time to heart. The entire set seems a series of paintings on canvas, some that remain stationary as frames for the action, some that turn in place to evoke scene changes, and others that drop in or fly off on cables to complete each desired picture. You might say it’s all painterly or even “pixolated,” which in a sense it is. It gives fresh meaning to the appropriate notion of “cubism,” and is breathtakingly lovely to look at too.
Vocally, the opera belongs to American soprano Katie Van Kooten, who took on the role of doomed Mimi at London’s Covent Garden last year. At times, Van Kooten’s voice is almost too big to emanate from the usually small and preternaturally fragile Mimi – as though her swelling, hall-filling notes found their way into La Boheme from some other opera. Her portrayal works nonetheless, perhaps pointing out to me for the first time that while Mimi’s days on earth are numbered, she herself says her love is “immense as the sea.” From the center of her weakness and disease-stricken palor, we hear and we sense, in a fresh way, her boundless love.
As Rodolfo, Dimitri Pittas’ well-modulated and graceful tenor occasionally gets lost when it runs into Van Kooten’s firepower, as it has to in some of Boheme’s most memorable romantic moments. But Pittas delivers when it counts, such as in Act I’s signature aria “Che gelida manina” or in his wrenching duet with Mimi in a snow-drifting dawn in Act III. No one seeing the unrelenting believability of this encounter could doubt the viability of musical drama, even when elsewhere it might seem silly and senseless. In a lifetime of Boheme-going, I suspect this version of Act III is the most powerful I’ll live to see.
The rest of the cast, led by painter Marcello and his buddies Schaunard and Colline, is nothing short of amazing. Their ensemble work is terrific, the comic touches especially, which (as with the larger production) serve to underline Marcello’s jealous rages at his love Musetta and, of course, Colline’s justifiably famous farewell to his beloved overcoat, sold too late to buy medicine and other care for Mimi. Joshua Hopkins, Vuyani Mlinde and Michael Sumuel deserve high praise as these high-spirited buddies, as does HGO alum Heidi Stober as the flirt-with-a-heart-of-gold Musetta. Her “Musetta’s Waltz” in the middle of the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve is here, as it ought to be, an audience favorite. The HGO orchestra, conducted by former HGO Studio artist Evan Rogister, finds its way to the heart of the story in ways that make La Boheme one of the most eternally affecting operas in the repertoire.
Photos for HGO by Felix Sanchez