The Kentucky Opera opens its season Friday with a gorgeous production of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.” The talented cast is young and beautiful, Robert Little’s set is sumptuous, and when combined with Puccini’s stirring score – let’s just say that freezing in a shabby candlelit Paris apartment with your underemployed friends never felt so appealing.
I attended Wednesday evening’s full dress preview performance, so this review will have a broad focus on overall tone and execution of the production, not musical commentary, as some of the singers may have been reserving their voices a bit and conductor Joseph Mechavich still had some spots to work with the Louisville Orchestra and the opera’s chorus before opening night.
“La Bohème” is the story of Rodolfo (Patrick O’Halloran), a poet with a jealous streak, and painter Marcello (Luis Orozco), as they fall in and out of romances with beautiful women – Rodolfo with the frail seamstress Mimì (Corinne Winters) and Marcello with his on-again/off-again love, the coquettish singer Musetta (Louisville native Emily Albrink). They are accompanied throughout their adventures by their witty sidekicks, philosopher Colline (John Arnold) and musician Schaunard (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek).
It’s a young but able cast – all six are performing these roles for the first time with a professional company, and that lends a youthful authenticity to scenes which revolve around some version of “drinking the night away while your friends make poor decisions” that is difficult to fake. With this cast, even the 1830s Paris setting manages to feel fresh, not antique – in costume, the men look like spare Mumford sons, not fussy divos. And they all look the part of the beguiling artist. too. Smith-Kotlarek is even featured on (this is a real thing) Barihunks, a website celebrating “the sexiest baritone hunks from opera.”
The show opens in the garret with the young men cold and hungry on Christmas Eve, duping their landlord (Tony Dillon, the lone veteran of the cast) out of rent and rushing to their Left Bank hangout, Café Momus, to celebrate. But first, Rodolfo and Mimì meet and fall in love at first sight. Winters and O’Halloran enjoy a playful chemistry as they exchange in a lovely set of solos, then come together for a duet as they join the group for Act II.
The show also features a large chorus of townspeople for Act II in the square, and while opera’s arias and duets often get the glory, in Puccini’s ensembles we see the foundations of what will become the great production numbers of American musical theater.
At the café, Marcello sees his hated ex-girlfriend and tries (to no avail) to ignore her as she works overtime to get him to notice her with her older, richer lover (Dillon again). Albrink is enchanting as Musetta, the talented beauty who is acutely aware of her position as girl of the hour, and Orozco smolders for her until he gives in and lets himself again be carried away by her charm. Set a couple of months later, Act III brings problems. As Mimì grows more ill, she and Rodolfo alternately cling to each other and push each other away, while the passion that Marcello and Musetta shares shows its ugly side. In Act IV, it is spring, and the couples have split but are reunited when Musetta brings a dying Mimì back to the garret.
Puccini’s classic love story stays on top of opera’s greatest hits not only for its masterful book and score, but for its elegant simplicity – it’s the opera even opera novices can follow. If Jonathan Larson could so handily transfer the story to 1990s Manhattan, so too can Puccini transfer contemporary “Rent” fans back to the tumultuous times of France’s second revolution without missing a beat.
“La Bohème” is a madly romantic story. And although the love stories of Rodolfo and Mimì and their counterparts Musetta and Marcello are passionate and timeless, the real romance of “La Bohème” is between the artists and their youth, their potential, the sheer glory of living a life of truth and beauty in a wild and boundless Paris they could barely afford.
And so “La Bohème” must be a coming-of-age story, with (spoiler alert!) Mimì’s death ending a particularly innocent chapter in the lives of the artists, who up to that point faced their challenges with limitless optimism and good humor. (And if dying is an art, as Plath says, Winters does it exceptionally well.) Rodolfo’s loss will haunt him for the rest of his life, while the friends, especially Musetta, grow up incredibly fast when they are confronted with their own mortality and sacrifice their few possessions to make Mimì more comfortable in her last moments. This is what makes the story of “La Bohème” so strong and enduring. True loss puts limits around possibility. We will not live forever; it is as certain as the movement of the Earth, and the first time we learn that lesson stays with us always.
“La Bohème” runs Friday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.) at the Brown Theatre.