The Kentucky Opera returns this month with Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the bittersweet story of artists living and dying and falling in and out of love in the cafés and garrets of 19th century Paris.
Puccini premiered “La Bohème” at Turin’s Teatro Regio in 1896, and it remains one of the top five operas performed around the world. Kentucky Opera opened last season with Puccini’s “Tosca,” another perennial favorite. The company last staged “La Bohème” in 2006.
“‘La Bohème’ is that timeless tale of starving artists living in a sixth-floor walk-up, with no heat and just as likely not to have running water. At least the natural light was good for painting,” says Kentucky Opera general manager David Roth.
The story begins on Christmas Eve, with writer Rodolfo (company member Patrick O’Halloran) and painter Marcello (Luis Orozco, making his Kentucky Opera mainstage debut) freezing in their garret apartment, trying to decide what they should burn for heat. That night, Rodolfo meets and falls in love with Mimi (Corinne Winters, a Kentucky Opera debut), a seamstress suffering from consumption. Meanwhile, Marcello rekindles his on-again, off-again romance with the flirtatious Musetta (Louisvillian Emily Albrink). They run around with philosophers and musicians. They are poor, but passionate.
Roth attributes Puccini’s popularity in part to his appreciation for powerful emotional performances and his theatrical approach to composing music. “La Bohème” is Puccini’s second production with librettists Illica and Giacosa, a particularly fruitful collaboration that also yielded “Tosca” and “Madame Butterfly.”
“Because of his love for the stage, [Puccini] knew the importance of a good libretto, the dialogue on which the opera is based and composed,” says Roth. “He was also a stickler for detail and authenticity, devoting incessant time to creating a realistic, authentic picture on the stage.”
Puccini drew much of his inspiration for the story from Henri Murger’s 1851 novel “Scénes de la Vie de Bohème,” which captured the bohemian artist spirit of the Romantic period Latin Quarter, describing artists as being “called’ to a life of high passions and low pay. The enduring appeal of this spirit and the story proves true in Jonathan Larson’s popular Tony Award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” which updates Puccini’s opera to the New York art scene at the height of the AIDS crisis.
“Whether the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 19th century or the Village in New York in the 20th century, the setting changes but the characters remain the same —artists from divergent backgrounds and passions gathering to commiserate, placate, stimulate and pontificate each other,” says Roth. “They are living the lives their parents would abhor.”
“La Bohème” runs September 20 and 22 at the Brown Theatre.