LA Opera’s La bohème Dances on the Dark Side

Jim Farber on September 16, 2019
(L To R): Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo), Michael J. Hawk (Schaunard), Nicholas Brownlee (Colline), Kihun Yoon (Marcello) in LA Opera’s 2019 production of La bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver

It’s hard to believe, but unti Saturday, Los Angeles Opera’s immensely successful production of Puccini’s La bohéme had been in the company rotation since 1993.

Its replacement is a far edgier, more coldly alienating interpretation from the Komische Oper Berlin directed by Barrie Kosky. Like the lens of the camera, which becomes a central metaphor for the production, Kosky’s view of 19th-century Paris is stark and challenging, never cuddly or sentimental. It is a world rendered in shades of grey.

It is also production that (literally) stumbles over the awkwardness of its trapdoor garret set design, weather defying costumes, and a broad direction style that plays up the laughs but misses the heart of Puccini’s bohemian rhapsody. The brightest spot is the young cast which is filled with vigor and enthusiasm, and adroit orchestral performance led by James Conlon that adds color to an otherwise desolate landscape.  

It arrives at a time when LA Opera is reeling from the accusations of sexual harassment involving its principal star, oft-times conductor and general director, Plácido Domingo. There were even rumors that there were going to be demonstrations to disrupt Saturday’s glittery opening night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimi and Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo in LA Opera’s 2019 production of La bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver

No such protests materialized. In the lounge, a video promoted Domingo’s still-planned February/March performances in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, but his traditional message of greeting was conspicuously absent from the program, as was Domingo from the audience and the after party. He was, however, well-represented by a cast that features several past winners of Domingo’s Operalia competition, most notably American soprano Marina Costa-Jackson who was making her company debut as Mimì.

As it should be, the attention was focused on Kosky’s production, which offers a decidedly stark and bleak interpretation of Puccini’s bohemian rhapsody. In some ways it is more akin to Rent in the way it depicts these young people as they struggle to overcome poverty and death, celebrate friendship, and revel in the process of creating art.

Kosky sets the action at a time when the new technology of photography was transforming our vision of the world and a mosaic of faded Daguerreotype plates serve as a backdrop to the bohemian’s garret. Their faded portraits watch over the action like so many ghosts. He also transforms Marcello (sung by the dynamic baritone, Kihun Yoon) into a photographer rather than a painter. Unfortunately, more time wasn’t taken to make the process more authentic.

Kosky’s time-blending staging unfolds, he stated, as a memory play, as if an older Rodolfo, now a successful writer, looks back on that transformative winter and summer of his discontent, when he faced death head-on and had his heart broken for the first time. At the production’s bleakest moment, during the third act winter street scene, the entire stage picture is reduced to a single grainy backdrop photograph. There is no warm cozy inn to escape to. No softly falling snow, no chorus of bundled up workers, just a generous amount of pain and suffering.

Erica Petrocelli as Musetta in LA Opera’s 2019 production of La bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver

It’s during the second-act Christmas-Eve scene at the Café Momus that Kosky, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, and costume designer Victoria Behr pull out all the stops. As the voices of Mimì and Rodolfo (romantic tenor, Saimir Pirgu) fade away, the stage revolves to reveal the café. It’s a Parisian menagerie populated by the struggling bohemians, demimonde denizens, garishly painted “hello, soldier” prostitutes, Chinese opium smokers, tuxedo-clad slummers, wine-carrying waiters, leather-booted dominatrices, slinky transvestites, a weird space alien, and a death-mask marching band! Picking the cast out among the swirling multitudes is like a game of Where’s Waldo?

When Kosky unveiled this Bohème last season, he and his Berlin company (due to ample government support) had the benefit of an 8-week rehearsal schedule. LA Opera has no such luxury. In addition, due to the pressure of opening his own season, Kosky was forced to send his representative, Katharina Fritsch, to oversee the Los Angeles staging which was still seeking its emotional balance of humor, passion and pathos on opening night.

A scene from LA Opera’s 2019 production of La bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver

The heart of the opera is, of course, the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì contrasted with the ongoing tempestuous battle of the sexes between Marcello and Musetta. Pirgu has an ideally toned tenor voice that can project all the way to its upper range. He strikes a handsome presence as Rodolfo and is emotionally convincing (despite some awkward staging) as he struggles through his conflicted relationship with Mimì and her declining health.

More punk-style ragamuffin than delicate Paris waif, Costa-Jackson infuses Mimì with the luster of her full-voiced soprano. She defies the doom that’s ravaging her body by flinging herself into her lover’s arms with abandon. But when the inevitable end comes, Kosky transforms the moment into a frozen post-mortem image you will not soon forget.

Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo and Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimi in LA Opera's 2019 production of La bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver

Yoon is a good deal more convincing vocally than he is as a would-be photographer. The difficult woman in his life— the flamboyant queen of the Latin Quarter, Mussetta — is sung with flair and elegance by Erica Petrocelli, her radiant gown and waltzing voice lighting up the Café Momus. The other two members of the bohemian quartet, Colline and Schaunard, are well sung by Nicholas Brownlee and Michael J. Hawk.

Whatever intimacy may be lacking in the vastness of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it is compensated by the insightfully accented conducting of James Conlon and the harmonious choral preparation by Grant Gershon. It was certainly time to present a new Bohéme and with Kosky’s production Puccini’s opera takes on a whole new sense of time and place, though it falls short in dramatic intensity and clarity of purpose.

NOTE: This review has been updated from its original version.