Los Angeles Opera 2019-20 Review: La Bohème
Barrie Kosky’s Emphasis on Death Gives Puccini’s Masterpiece New LifeBy Gordon Williams
(Photo: Cory Weaver)
In an incredibly interesting interview with Simon Berger in the program booklet for Los Angeles Opera’s latest production “La Bohème” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, director Barrie Kosky asserts that Puccini’s “La Bohème” is actually about death.
Many might counter that it’s about young love or, more fully, young love cut short by death, but Kosky’s tighter focus has amazing ramifications for this production which comes to Los Angeles from Berlin’s Komische Oper where the Melbourne-born director is the Intendant.
Dealing With Death
Puccini’s opera tells of four young friends (five, if you count Marcello’s girlfriend Musetta) enjoying their youths, and youthful struggles, in the poorer artistic echelons of Paris (set here at the turn of the 20th century).
A sixth person (Mimì) enters the scene and she and Rodolfo find a love that is more serious than their peers’ “loves that last as long as a bedroom candle,” to quote the book that the opera was based on: Murger’s “Scenes from Bohemian Life.”
But traditionally, Mimì, who will die, is sick from the start. One of the striking features of this production is that Mimì is quite healthy in the first half. No shadow of mortal illness hangs over her, or her and Rodolfo’s affair, until the third Act and then it hits hard. The “characters’ first experience with death” is this production’s harrowing perspective.
As a result of this, I found that features of this opera jumped out at me as they never had before. Even without the visual of Mimì struggling to stay healthy, I heard familiar lines with a new portent of death – Rodolfo’s “Love is a flame that burns too quickly” for example (as it appears in David Anglin’s supertitles), and I noted the irony of one of the characters wishing “winter could last forever” since, by now it was obvious, death for Mimì would come with the spring.
I say “irony” because of how palpably cold the characters are in most productions of “La Bohème.” Here the weather was not as strong a presence. There was no snowfall at the tollgate in Act three as in other productions. Rufus Didwiszus’s set consisted of a backdrop displaying an old daguerreotype of a Paris street, with a slit in it through the which the characters entered and exited. It is a mark of how effectively this production conveyed its concerns about death while being virtually devoid of “environmental pressure.”
And it wasn’t just the prevalence of life-and-death images that struck me anew as a result of Kosky’s interpretation. I found myself hearing “new” things in the music (A trumpet doubles the melody in “O soave fanciùlla!?”), so refreshed were my reactions.
Death Through Photography
The message of death comes through really in Kosky’s emphasis on the 19th-century invention of photography. He explained in the program booklet that the Daguerrotype, an early form of photography, used plates that faded over time.
What a wonderful metaphor for the youth and life that Mimì and Rodolfo will not be able to sustain forever, I thought, as I looked at faded images in the background. Especially compared to the bustling life of the Act two Café Momus scene – a writhing throng of people (the LA Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus) crowded onto a revolving stage, lit and costumed beautifully by Alessandro Carletti & Marco Philipp and Victoria Behr, respectively.
Some of the most poignant moments in the work included Marcello’s attempt to photograph (preserve on film) two of the Momus’s nightclub dancers in Act three and Mimì sitting alone in a cold light, dead at the end, having been captured in a final photograph only moments before. Marcello’s attempt to photograph the dancers brought back to me the thought that often crosses my mind looking at a Toulouse-Lautrec: “but these laughing people are long gone.”
But what is the production like musically? In his interview, Kosky says, “I don’t know any other major composer except Puccini who writes this kind of ‘prop choreography,’” referring to the space Puccini will leave in the music for someone to, say, bring over a glass.
Such respect for Puccini’s stagecraft is a relief after the academic dismissals of Puccini that I’ve read over the years. But the orchestra, under LA Opera Music Director James Conlon sounded beautifully full right from the very start. I loved the conjuring of the celestial moonlight underneath “O soave fanciùlla,” the tender cushioning chords under, say, Rodolfo’s first observation of Mimì’s beauty, the sparkling woodwind playing overall, and, in particular, the detailed work of harpist, JoAnn Turovsky.
As the four friends (Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline), Saimir Pirgu, Kihun Yoon, Michael J. Hawk and Nicholas Brownlee were a lively bunch, with Saimir Pirgu and Kihun Yoon standing out, as they probably should, as the first two among equals.
Kosky conceives Mimì as a young woman so full of life that her death will come as a shock to the five friends. Marina Costa-Jackson, in her LA Opera debut, conveyed Mimì’s naturally delightful character so effectively as to be even able to manage a giggle in the middle of singing “I am the neighbor who came to bother you” (part of her big number, “Mi chiamano Mimì”). She was so full of life that I wondered how she could possibly get from there to death within the space of an interval, but that is one of the great achievements of this production. Saimir Pirgu’s Rodolfo was beautifully judged. He sang of Mimì’s frozen hand “Che gelida manina” with admirable directness, in a performance that was moving overall without the need for histrionics.
Erica Petrocelli and Kihun Yoon were the show’s effective counterweights as the interpreters of Musetta’s and Marcello’s sturdier, more fiery love affair. Petrocelli’s delivery of Musetta’s Waltz Song was a standout occasion amidst the bustle of the Café Momus scene, but the “sit-up-straight” moment for me was their huge fight in Act three ending in a massive center-stage kiss as Rodolfo and Mimì acknowledged their growing alienation (Rodolfo hardly able to face the idea that Mimì might die, news to us too).
The whole show shifted my musical attention away from the Act one showstoppers toward the end. Perhaps the most moving moment for me was the change in Erica Petrocelli’s Musetta in Act Four when she brings the dying Mimì up to the boys’ attic.
It was Luigi Illica, Puccini’s original scenarist, who made something of Mimì’s death from the scattered clues and panoply of characters in Murger’s original book, mapping Mimì’s decline Act by Act. But Kosky’s decision to have Mimì full of life until interval brilliantly transferred the opera’s center of gravity later so that the inevitable, when it occurred, was actually more devastating.
I couldn’t help remembering the freshness of Cher’s response in “Moonstruck” when Nicholas Cage (as Ronny Cammareri) takes her (as Loretta Castorini) to “La Boheme” at The Met:
LORETTA: That was so awful.
LORETTA: Beautiful…sad. She died!