Sunday, September 15, 2019

Puccini's La bohème flickers its charms under director Barrie Kosky in a snapshot of heartfelt life at Los Angeles Opera

Nearing the close of the 19th century, when the speed of technological and industrial advancement must certainly have felt epoch-making, Puccini’s La bohème premiered at the Teatro Regio in Turin and quickly became popular. The work’s mix of carefree existence - notwithstanding the need for food on the table and heat for the winter  - the exuberance of youth, navigation through love and confrontation with death comes together in a richly woven dramatic and sensory story. All the more, it flickered its charms in Australian director Barrie Kosky’s new production which opened the 2019/20 and 34th season at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday.
Scene from Act II in LA Opera's  La bohème directed byBarrie Kosky

Kosky demonstrates a well-honed concept for his early photographic-inspired production, first unveiled early this year at his artistic home, the Komische Oper Berlin. Kosky keeps his concept alive, interesting and effective, and brings it together with a spread of superb emotional snapshots, setting the story not in 1830s Paris but around the time of its premiere in 1896 when a new century was looming. Nothing would suggest otherwise. And with it, in Kosky’s world, Christmas Eve at Cafe Momus feels as if freedom to be what you want to be and do what you want to do, is everyone’s right for a new century.

But imagine the impact and excitement of being able to pose for and hold onto a photo image of self at the time. An image that could live for eternity. Kosky more or less highlights, through photography’s capture of a moment in time, the story’s origins as a series of vignettes, based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. It’s also used to dictate the imagery of Rufus Didwiszus’ stage design, in which early daguerreotypes of grainy portraits and street scenes provide a backdrop. The bohemians’ loft is a simple platform accessed from a hatch below and a boxed camera on its tripod becomes a brilliantly resolved focus for so much of the action. Alessandro Carletti’s refined lighting design adds further to create a picture of a nostalgic past and Victoria Behr’s costumes are a cornucopia of bustling style and intrigue. 

It’s as if Kosky reminds his modern audience that our Puccini bohemians aren’t so different from our own society’s preoccupation with photographing everything we do and the selfies we snap. He uses stills and forward-facing acted scenes for effect when you might expect more face-to-face contact. But Kosky is always gentle with the work’s heartbeat. Marcello, the artist, has taken to photography and his camera is used with complete natural intent by Rodolfo to capture an image of his newfound love, the tragically framed but spirited Mimì. When Mimì nears her final breaths at the end of Act IV, it doesn’t come as a surprise that her image is captured one last time, a poignant and lasting memory for both Rodolfo and the audience.

Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo and Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimì
On opening night, Kosky’s work fizzed with vitality and emotion, achieved through the outstanding breadth of talent who delivered both powerful and visceral vocals on stage and by the tireless team of musicians in the pit led buoyantly by James Conlon in producing an excellent and expressive-rich sound. 

Utah-born soprano Marina Costa-Jackson notched up a spectacularly memorable house debut as Mimì which no single photo could capture, her vocal modulation, sumptuous textures and audible confidence in all parts of the voice melding with glaringly vivid emotivity. Costa-Jackson’s Mimì is one part coy, two parts impetuous and unlimited in endearing mannerisms, making her impending death one difficult sobbing loss. There’s neither a note nor a moment that Costa-Jackson doesn’t make feel critical to the performance, her soaring large beauty making a phenomenal mark as she shares with Marcello the difficulty she has in dealing with Rodolfo’s jealousy, he having left her the night before, in Act III’s O buon Marcello, aiuto!—"Oh, good Marcello, help me!".

Dynamism and passion tempered with shots of tenderness and sincerity characterise Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu’s muscularly sung Rodolfo. Pirgu’s appealingly driven phrasing and clear diction - something that glistened across just about the whole cast - is unleashed with enormous life. Despite having reservations about his character’s sometimes-seen stunted attitude to love,  the chemistry shared between his Rodolfo and Costa-Jackson’s Mimì, in all its fullness and cracks, is palpable. And the kiss that closes Act III when they agree to stay together until the spring? You feel like jumping with them. 

Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard, Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo,
Kihun Yoon as Marcello and Nicholas Brownlee as Colline
While Rodolfo and his bohemian friends can be a tad unlikeable, they rise beyond all with hearts as big as an elephant’s in one of opera’s most compassionately drawn scenes when Mimì chooses to die amongst them. South Korean Kihun Yoon startles immediately as his smooth and turbocharged baritone brings brawn and stature to his Marcello. The shenanigans are elevated with boyish pranks by warm baritone Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard and impressive bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee. Hawk lost some vocal power alongside his comrades on opening night but his investment in tone and character are strong. Brownlee’s assured vocal bellows are at their prime in Act IV’s Vecchia zimarra—"Old coat", the funereal meter of the aria given a most heart wrenching preparation for death to come. Erica Petrocelli is all glamour and showiness as Marcello’s on-again-off-again lover, her silvery soprano having the flexibility to sing some dashing coloratura but not always sailing the heights of the music around her. The combined men’s, women’s and children’s choruses sound a jubilant treat.

It’s a decidedly rewarding production on many fronts and for those with a stack of old La bohème programs, this one will look great at the top. 

La bohème
Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 6th October, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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