What is there about Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) that has made it the world’s most popular opera? Certainly the struggle of bright, young, free-wheeling, impoverished artists rebelling against the ordered society of post-Napoleonic Paris — and in the process seeking self-identification — makes an appealing storyline. Rodolfo the poet, Marcello the painter, Colline the philosopher and Schaunard the musician quickly gain our empathy with their rapid, humorous, lightly sarcastic repartee. And coquettish Musetta bestows her favors on any man who can support her, but loves Marcello — who can’t. Then there is Rodolfo’s love, Mimì (“la bohème”) — the frail, consumptive flower embroiderer who bestows a more mature life perspective on all these people, in exchange for her own life.
‘La Bohème’ was presented by Indianapolis Opera last weekend.
Yet it is Puccini’s gorgeously opulent score that has made La Bohème a paragon with opera lovers — a continuous parade of melody, richly cloaked in Puccinian harmonies, all housing a perfect blend of vocalizing and scintillating orchestral color. And, because its reputation always precedes it, Indianapolis Opera added a third Clowes Hall performance last Saturday between its usual Friday evening/Sunday matinee spots. Friday and Sunday were sold out. Quite familiar to IO patrons, soprano Amy Johnson as Mimì sang with enough verve to carry over the orchestral tuttis — yet expressing the tenderness her failing health and abiding love for Rodolfo demands. From her opening Act 1 aria, “Mi chia mano Mimì,” to her Act 4 death whisper, Johnson dominated. Soprano Carollyn Rock, singing Musetta, proved scarcely less persuasive. Her saccharine vocalizing in her self-adulatory “Quando me’n vo soletta” (better known as “Musetta’s Waltz”) in the big Latin Quarter scene (Act 2) became — in Act 4 — softer, sweeter and less self-centered when encountering the sobering experience of dealing with Mimì’s impending death. Mark Thomsen, singing Rodolfo, was a bit disappointing. His tenor voice lacked the heft to match Johnson in their many duets. In addition, he couldn’t be heard above the orchestra in the climactic parts of his many arias. Whereas baritone Thomas Potter’s Marcello offered more resonance and provided a better match with Rock’s Musetta, notably in their “clashing” Act 3 duet. Rod Nelman — an IO first-timer — as Collard and Stephen Hartley as Schaunard rounded out the principals, both of whom held their own. Joshua Major’s stage direction nicely managed the difficult Latin Quarter scene, with scads of children and the IO chorus intermixing well with the principals. Boyd Ostroff’s “garret” set in Acts 1 and 4 was more simplistic than in past productions, providing little more than a skylight backdropped by two large paintings — presumably of 1830s Paris. Ostroff’s Acts 2 and 3 backdrops were appropriately lavish. For Puccini’s masterful score, IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher got balanced, well-articulated playing from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. He could, however, have supplied a little more verve in Act 1’s opening “repartee” scene. While I don’t usually comment on a single mistake, the bad slip on the first chord of those blaring C-sharp minor brasses proclaiming Mimì’s expiring in Friday’s performance severely compromised the perhaps most gut-wrenching moment in all opera. Additionally, the curtain began dropping before the music finished, guaranteeing the final chord would be drowned by applause. That should be a no-no.