Review: Merrily We 'La Boheme?' Puccini Opera Told Backwards in Boston Lyric Opera Production

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 27, 2022

Jesus Garcia and Lauren Michelle in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "La Boheme"
Jesus Garcia and Lauren Michelle in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "La Boheme"  (Source:Olivia Moon)

Last month, Boston Lyric Opera opened its new season with a gala production of Charles Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette." The French, grand opera was presented free of charge on the Boston Common. This week, the company relocates a few yards south, setting up shop in the Colonial Emerson Theatre. The vehicle is the enduring operatic classic, "La Boheme," by Giacomo Puccini. Over the past few decades, the seemingly indestructible work has undergone countless updatings, relocations and offbeat renditions; so there was nothing left to do but play the opera backwards. And BLO did exactly that.

Throughout the world, "La Boheme" is arguably the most popular and frequently performed work in the current repertoire. This honor was once given to Verdi's "Aida;" however, as costs for performing operas have risen greatly, mounting a spectacle like "Aida" is often prohibitive. More intimate works such as "La Traviata" and "La Boheme" have thus gained ground. The reason for the supremacy of "La Boheme" is simple. It is a perfect opera. The bittersweet tale of a poor, frail seamstress and a starving poet set in bohemian 19th century Paris, is told in four symmetrical acts. Each of the tableaux has a unique color and mood; and all four acts contain music of the highest melodic inspiration.

A scene from the Boston Lyric Opera's "La Boheme"
A scene from the Boston Lyric Opera's "La Boheme"  (Source: Olivia Moon)

The BLO production was handsomely mounted, with all the action taking place on a huge, tilted turntable. The visual elements were minimal, and the colors muted. However, the subtle lighting design and splashes of vivid color in some of the costumes proved very striking. The staging was quite traditional, which helped to counteract the shock of the reverse order treatment.

Rather than being submerged in a pit, the sizable orchestral forces were positioned on a flat platform that extended out into the first rows of seating. Thus, the orchestral sound was unusually present and lush, due in large part to BLO music director David Angus' splendid conducting. As the acts were performed in exact, reverse order, a narrator was employed to tell the story as a flashback, and meld them together in that context. One is willing to accept any manner of concept when the singing is of high enough caliber.

BLO managed to assemble a uniformly strong cast for its "La Boheme," one that nearly succeeded in making the audience forget the shift in gears. As the consumptive heroine, Mimi, soprano Lauren Michelle gave a beautifully sung and thoroughly satisfying performance. Her voice has a darker hue than one usually hears in this role, but she sang with great security and conviction. She was able to float some ethereal soft, high-notes, and employed all manner of dynamic nuance in her interpretation.

A scene from the Boston Lyric Opera's "La Boheme"
A scene from the Boston Lyric Opera's "La Boheme"  (Source: Olivia Moon)

Tenor Jesus Garcia was barely audible in the first (fourth) act, but as the opera moved forward—or backward—his voice found its center, and carried quite well. This allowed for a fine "Che gelida manina." His lyric tenor sound was quite pleasing, and he was a respectable Rodolfo. Likewise, BLO regular Chelsea Basler was well vocally suited for the role of the flirtatious Musetta. To her credit, she played the part with admirable restraint. The Act 2 "Quando m'en vo," a.k.a. "Musetta's Waltz," is the most popular aria in the opera; and Basler did not disappoint!

The roles of Rodolfo's roommates, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline, were all extremely well sung. Edward Parks was a superb Marcello. He possesses a warm, lyric baritone, though he mustered an impressive sound in his thunderous reprise of Musetta's waltz theme. Baritone Benjamin Taylor used his sturdy, well focused voice to create a lively Schaunard. The vocal standout was William Guanbo Su as Colline. Rarely has the little overcoat aria been better sung. This is a truly stellar voice.

Although a "backwards Boheme," may not be to everyone's taste, it is always a pleasure to hear Puccini's sublimely lyrical score; and from a musical standpoint, BLOs rendition was top-notch. There are two more performances of the Puccini, on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. The company then closes up shop until next March when it will present Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle," with an epilogue consisting of four songs by Alma Mahler. For tickets and further information, visit www.blo.org.