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Pairs Of Lovers Bounce From Jealousy To Lust, Desperation, and Hope In Puccini’s Workhorse

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: (from left) Steven Harrison and Ermonela Jaho sing their starving, artistic little hearts out in La Bohème.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 5/3/2006

La Bohème

By Giacomo Puccini

At the Lyric Opera House through May 7

The glory of La Bohème is that despite its subject of tortured young artists, the opera is not interested in the content of the bohemian mind, just the pretty ravings of the artistic temperament in full swagger. And so we are spared the introspective recitations that belabor so many contemporary stories of starving artists, and are treated instead to a catalog of love arias in all the very passionate poses: at-first-sight, jealous anguish, and various shades of heartbreak—each as exquisite as it is overwrought. Coming on the heels of Jake Heggie’s dreadfully self-important, tuneless, and interminable Dead Man Walking, Baltimore Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s popular war-horse comes as a particular delight. This is opera as we’ve heard it was supposed to be: all swooning and spectacle.

The plot is slender and familiar. Paris, Latin Quarter, end of the 19th century. Rodolfo (Steven Harrison) and Mimi (Ermonela Jaho) meet cute in his drafty garret. He’s a poor scribbler, she an embroidery artist. After trading arias about the glory of love, they join Rodolfo’s hipster friends at Café Momus, where we observe the jealousy-fueled squabbling of a more seasoned relationship, that between fellow bohemian Marcello (Jeffrey Kneebone) and his sometime love and constant torment, the coquette Musetta (Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs). Intermission. Some months later, outside a public house, Rodolfo admits to Marcello that Mimi is sick with consumption. Rodolfo can’t afford to maintain her health, so he’s leaving her for her own good. When he notices frail Mimi lurking in the shadows, the couple again wax operatical about their perfect love and decide to remain together until spring. Meanwhile, Marcello and Musetta traffic in more heated lyrical violence. Intermission. Mimi comes to die in Rodolfo’s flat. They savor their last moments of love, while the others try to help her live. Naturally, she doesn’t. Rodolfo cries her name twice. Curtain.

Elizabeth Bachman’s efficient staging speeds by without ever feeling rushed, and one intermission would have been enough. As swooning/fainting/dying Mimi, the Albanian soprano Jaho manages to convey frailty with sparkling robustness. Her voice is clear and strong and pretty, and her rapport with Rodolfo both genuine and affecting. Harrison plays the lead tenor as a boyish charmer, fighting against the mopey inclinations of the part, and it’s a smart choice. His voice is a bit reedy at times, and in rare moments is overpowered by the orchestra, but it’s mostly the perfect color for the purity of his feelings for Mimi.

As the lusty, brawling counterpoint couple, Blancke-Biggs and Kneebone give full voice to their inflamed emotions. Blancke-Biggs’ first aria in the second act is the most memorable of the night, while Kneebone’s booming baritone is a picture of virility (though he capably expresses vulnerability, too, in the third and fourth acts). Kenneth Mattice and Christian Van Horn respectively play the musician Schaunard and philosopher Colline with matching verve. The playful camaraderie between the four bohemian men is one of the delights of this production, both as comic relief and a welcome breather between the arias.

For those who turn to the opera for grand spectacle, this production rewards with Michael Yeargan’s impressive sets, which transform the cavernous stage into the tight warrens of squalid apartments, taverns, and alleys. The effect is magnified in the second act, when the chorus crowds the stage with a seeming endless parade of actors, marching in from every entrance, including the audience. (The Lyric was happily packed on Saturday’s opening night, with a few ladies wearing outfits that rivaled the glamorous excess costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan provided for Musetta’s sumptuous gowns.) But it is in its intimate moments that this La Bohème is most impressive. Puccini wisely doesn’t take his subjects as seriously as they do themselves, and it’s his deft touch—and their equally nimble interpretation by the Baltimore Opera—that packs a surprising emotional punch by the time the inevitable deathbed is rolled onstage.

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