Review: La Bohème at the Detroit Opera House
Oops, wrong version.
Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press said of La Bohème that “there is no better starter opera for newcomers,” referencing the “across-the-board” appeal of Puccini’s emotionally nuanced compositions and the overall timelessness and universal accessibility of the opera’s core love story. Both of these things are true, but I think we need to consider a few other more contemporary factors as well.
La Bohème is also a great “starter opera” because of its pop-cultural familiarity, and not just in its depiction of the shared human experience of love and loss. Perhaps you’ve heard of a little stage play called Rent? Or maybe (to a slightly lesser extent) Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 romantic musical Moulin Rouge!? RENT-heads will find much of La Bohème more than a little familiar, from the self-possessed bawdiness of the Musetta/Maureen character to the duet sung by Mimi and Rodolfo/Roger as she asks him to light her candle and they fall hopelessly in love. Moulin Rouge! also borrows many of the same plot elements and themes (bohemian subculture in 19th-century Paris, the dying love interest), so anyone new to the opera and/or new to THIS opera will find a lot with which they are already familiar.
This predisposed familiarity will inevitably make audiences more receptive to this Italian opera (with English subtitles). It also helps that the opera is broken down into four short acts (versus the two long acts most are written as), making it easy to digest without getting sleepy or distracted. Yes, as a beginner’s opera, La Bohème — the second most-performed opera in the United States — makes for good training wheels.
But it is also, quite simply, a great story, full of love, humor and raw emotion (anger, jealousy, grief). There is also something impossibly romantic about bohemian Paris (despite the poverty and disease) that lends La Bohème endless intrigue. The story focuses on the relationship between Mimi and Rodolfo, a seamstress and a writer who live in the same tenement building. Other characters include Rodolfo’s roommate, the painter Marcello, and Marcello’s torrid relationship with the fun-loving (yet well-intended) free spirit Musetta, as well as more of their bohemian friends. The heavy-heartedess of the doomed love story is offset by playful interactions amongst the characters, from mostly harmless trickstering to friendly jabbing and horseplay.
The Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of La Bohème at the Detroit Opera House does not miss a beat in balancing the humor with the tragedy. (After all, life is a little of both, is it not?) The cast assembled for this production are not only tremendous vocal talents, but also tremendous actors, able to convey playful wit and powerful emotion not only with their refined voices but also in their body language and physical interaction. A viewer doesn’t need to watch the projected subtitles to still have a good sense of what is happening onstage, once again making it a bit more accessible for opera “n00bs.” Kelly Kaduce — who plays Mimi on 11/13, 11/17, & 11/20 and who was also the saving grace of the MOT’s Don Giovanni earlier this year — sings with such delicate intonation it makes the emotional expression in her voice seem almost intuitive; she is once again the prize jewel of the production (I wonder how much it will be affected when the role of Mimi is played by soprano Grazia Doronzio on 11/19 & 11/21?). Kimwana Doner as Musetta is a riot and a diva and a wonder. The four male bohemian friends — Rodolfo (Francesco Demuro), Marcello (Marian Pop), Colline (Andrew Gray) and Schaunard (Lee Gregory) — were all while males with similarly-coiffed shaggy brown hair of comparable length and all of only slightly varying height and weight which made distinguishing them from each other a bit of a challenge, though this may simply be my own experience having left my glasses at home.
The sets are also impressive, structures made to look like paintings made to look like structures. Particularly the set for Act 3, which is made to look like a snowy winter night, in which the backdrop looks like the night sky reflecting the light from the moon, the stars, the snow … I swear I could almost see the northern lights.
On opening night the orchestra overpowered the singers’ voices a little, though that seemed to be corrected by the second act.
This was overall a great production with wide audience appeal, though admittedly I left there with “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Boheme” ringing through my head. Whether you’re new to the opera or a longtime supporter, La Bohème at the Opera House is a fine production with which to cross this integral piece off of your cultural bucket list.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and Nov. 19-20; 2:30 p.m. Nov. 21. Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit. 313-237-7464. michiganopera.org. $29-$121.