By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème
Saturday, May 12, 2012 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Next performances: May 20 and June 2 at 2 p.m.; May 23, 26 and 31 at 7:30 p.m.
Left to right: Museop Kim (Schaunard), Artur Rucinski (Marcello), Janai Brugger (Musetta), Stephen Costello (Rodolfo), Ailyn Perez (Mimi) in the climactic scene of Puccini’s La Bohème, which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a production by Los Angeles Opera.
Of the thousands of operas written since the genre began half a millennia ago, only a double-handful can be counted on as sure-fire audience pleasers (and box office winners for the company). Puccini’s comedy-turned-tragedy La Bohème is surely on that list, as last night’s performance by Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion demonstrated anew.
Part of the success is due to Puccini’s compact score. There’s barely two hours of music (the first act of Wagner’s Götterdämerung is longer) but it’s filled with melodious lines that tell a simple but heart-rending story using a libretto written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giocasa out of a story by Henry Mürger.
However, not every company makes La Bohème work as well as LA Opera did last night. Much of the success was due to a young, but wonderfully talented cast; in fact, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine that in the coming decades those who make the trip to downtown Los Angeles during the next three weeks will look back and say, “I remember when we saw … “ Not only did they look the part of the young Bohemian artists struggling to survive in Paris (not always a given for Bohème casts) but they sang strongly and brought the various parts to life, as it were, expertly, as well.
This was the sixth time in its 26-year-history that LA Opera has mounted this production, originally conceived by the late film director Herbert Ross. It remains a realistic, picturesque framework that falls in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mode. Gregory Fortner, a director as young as his cast, brought several nice touches to his concept, and kept the action moving along smartly. The atmospheric costumes were originally designed by Peter J. Hall and augmented by Jeannique Prospere, and Daniel Ordowner supplied sensitive, effective lighting.
Nonetheless, La Bohème ultimately stands or falls on its cast and this one was uniformly excellent, another example of LA Opera’s ability to cast well-matched, talented ensembles that has been the case for all of its productions in at least the past three seasons.
The headliners, Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez, as the poet Rodolfo and his consumption-wracked neighbor, Mimì, are husband and wife in real life but one would hope that their sensitive characterizations were due more to their talent than their marital relationship. Each displayed rich, gleaming voices that carried easily over the 69-member LA Opera Orchestra, which was led with sensitivity by Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera and principal guest conductor of San Francisco Opera, who like director Fortner was making his LAO debut.
The supporting characters of Marcello and Musetta often steal the show in La Bohème productions and that would have been the case last night had it not been for the excellence of Costello and Pérez. Artur Rucinski was a bright, playful Marcello and Janai Brugger — one of three members of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists program in the cast — was a saucy Musetta who displayed a lustrous soprano voice that showed why she was a winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera Young Artists Competition.
Other members of the ensemble were Robert Pomakov, Colline; Museop Kim, Schaunard; and Philip Cokorinos doubling as Benoit and Alcindro. Ben Bliss as Papignol led the way in the colorful second act II Café Momus scene, with members of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus joining in strong as the choral ensemble. Peggy Hickey supplied the choreography.
Whether you’ve seen dozens of productions of La Bohème or you’ve never experienced its emotional roller coaster, this is a production worth seeing, and a fine conclusion to a first-rate season for Los Angeles Opera.
• Including an intermission between acts II and III, the entire evening ran 2:30 in length.
• Mitchell Morris, a professor of music and musicology at UCLA, delivered the preconcert lecture; his obvious love the La Bohème was infectious.
• Another Domingo-Thornton member, Valentina Fleet, will replace Brugger in the role of Musetta for the final three performances.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.