For non-opera lovers, La Boheme rings no bells until you say the magic words, “It’s Rent set in the late 1800s.” The Broadway version stays faithful to its inspiration, making La Boheme infinitely more accessible to younger audiences even with Italian operatic singing and English subtitles flashing above the stage.
La Boheme is one of Giacomo Puccini’s most popular operas alongside Madame Butterfly. With a libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, it was first performed in Turin, Italy on February 1896.
The story revolves around two couples: poet Rodolfo (Brian Jagde) and seamstress Mimi (Sara Jakubiak), and painter Marcello (Timothy Kuhn) and mistress Musetta (Kate Mangiameli). Like their modern day incarnations, these couples at first exhibit the lightheartedness of the young and restless. Joined by friends philosopher Colline (Christopher Temporelli) and musician Schaunard (Matthew Hayward), these creative, free spirits dance and sing wandering the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter in search of merriment and, for the couples, basking in the glow of love.
Like all good things, this exuberance comes to an end as the couples find themselves in dire financial and physical straits. Mimi is dying of consumption, while Musetta gives in to her flirtatious nature by entertaining another man. In the end, death brings the cast together as Mimi lies dying, proving that at the end of life, love is really what all humans are searching for.
Though this opera comes in four acts, one would hardly feel it. Each act provided a natural progression of the story with an accompanying change of sets to boot. The first act introduced us to the couples and their cohorts in a mischievous manner. Boyish antics (similar to that of frat house follies?) were on display to the delight of the audience. A few snickers and a smattering of laughter could be heard throughout the whole act. Barring a few moments when characters bumped into their sets, the first act set an upbeat note for the first half of the show.
Kuhn’s voice was delightfully robust, which made Temporelli’s voice seem weaker in comparison. While Kuhn could be heard consistently throughout the theater, Temporelli’s dropped out every so often.
John Davies, playing Benoit the landlord, also makes a delightful appearance, providing the signature grumpy old man character that elicits laughter by his age and apparent marital indiscretions. He manages the same feat in the second act as Musetta’s sugar daddy, Alcindro.
The next act continued the rising action. The audience becomes privy to Musetta’s coquettish and comical attempts at regaining Marcello’s attention, highlighted to great effect by the playful music of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Mangiameli first comes off as an overdramatic Musetta, but we quickly realize that it’s simply Musetta being Musetta. Like Rent’s Maureen, she is kind but more than a little loopy.
The farce of Musetta’s attempts and Marcello’s fake indifference are set off perfectly by gaiety of men, women and children marching the streets of the Latin Quarter. The Syracuse Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus’s full force presence on stage made the street scene come to life.
Then comes tragedy in the third and fourth acts. The first blush of love soon fades and our characters are faced with the harsh reality of the world. While the main characters performed admirably, it was difficult for me to get into the action owing to the confusing subtitles flashing above. The meat of the characters’ heated conversation was lost on me as I tried to decode the misplaced, or sometimes out of synch, subtitles flashing above.
The story comes to a head as Rodolfo and Mimi once again meet after parting and pining for each other. Frighteningly pale and at death’s doorstep, Mimi was touching instead of trite in her final moments.
Stage direction by Joseph Bascetta was inspired. He asks Jakubiak not just to waste away on her deathbed, but directs her to struggle out of it reaching for her lover. Crumpled onto the floor, lovers echo their first magic moments together, hands and knees on the floor looking for Mimi’s lost keys in Rodolfo’s apartment. Sadly, this time, no happy ending was in sight. There was only loss and sorrow.
The Syracuse Opera begins their season strong with La Boheme, even prompting an avid opera-goer to say matter-of-factly, “I think that’s their best performance in a long time.” Indeed, even an opera novice like me could tell that there was energy in the air as the opera progressed confidently from one act to another. All aspects of production seemed to fall in place, and what wasn’t perfect became forgivable.
GO SEE IT: Syracuse Opera performs Puccini’s La Boheme one last time on 2 p.m. on October 25 at the John Mulroy Civic Center.