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Opera Theatre's 'Boheme' will enchant us - again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2009 - The searing, romantic “La Boheme” opens Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 34th festival season Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre in Webster Groves.

“Boheme” is to opera what chocolate is to food. Millions of music lovers can’t get enough of its heart- rending tale presented through soaring, luscious music.

“It’s the music of falling in love,” explained Tim O’Leary, the company’s new general director.

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” tells the simple story of four young, idealistic and, yes, near-starving artists and intellectuals and two beautiful working women. Unlike productions in too many of the world’s opera houses, the singers in this production not only can sing the roles but look the part. So, their romances are believable.

Boheme’s romantic lead is Rodolfo (sung by tenor Derek Taylor) a poet who gets paid occasionally as a freelance journalist. His new found love is a neighbor, a seamstress Mimi, (soprano Alyson Cambridge) who longs for the flowers of spring. He shares a walk-up, top-floor Latin Quarter room with painter Marcello (baritone Timothy Mix), a philosopher and part time professor Colline (bass Steven Humes) and a musician Schaunard (baritone Eugene Chan). The painter is besotted by the fiery Musetta (soprano Amanda Majeski).

Singers Cambridge, Mix, Majeski and Hume are known to St. Louis opera buffs since all participated in the Gerdine Young Artists program in former seasons where they received musical and stage coaching and sang in the OTSL chorus and in smaller roles.

In the opera, the four young men have so little cash they can’t afford fire wood for their garret room. In the first scene, musician Schaunard generously shares his pay from a Christmas gig with his three roommates allowing them a Christmas Eve celebration at the Café Momus.

This is not the dire poverty of some miner whose mine has closed nor a farmer who has lost his bit of land in yet another French revolution. All four of the men have options. Their Bohemian, anti-establishment life can be merely a stage. So, when they weary of not being able to buy a solid meal or have heat, their education can allow them to follow what they consider duller careers, salaried posts in the civil service or in business.

On the other hand, these 19th century French young women have limited if any education, apparently no protective families, certainly no requisite dowries.

“Boheme” in English -- as all OTSL operas have been sung since its birth in May 1976 -- is almost as old as the opera. When the one-year-old “La Boheme” opera was presented at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1897, it was not sung in its original Italian but in an English translation.

This is a revival of the company’s 2001 production with a new cast and a much enhanced set for the first and third acts. The set additions evoke the tight streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter.

Paris is a character in the tale. Puccini’s Italian writers based its story on Frenchman Henry Murger’s popular French magazine stories collected in 1851 into one volume called “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème.” A night at this opera might satisfy your Paris cravings in these poor economic times or tempt you to rush for an airline ticket.

OTSL Diction coach Erie Mills, a Granite City native who spent decades as a celebrated soprano herself, has spent nearly a month guiding the singers’ enunciation. Even if the St. Louis Symphony orchestra obscures a singer’s word or two, the Loretto-Hilton’s two screens with super-titles helps the audience retrieve the lost word.

The lack of the florid lyrics of many 1890s’ operas only highlights Puccini’s gift of expressing emotions in music. “Boheme” offers tender love melodies, torrid songs of flirtation and jealousy, a cheerful children’s song and a full measure of sorrowful music.

It has “such luscious gorgeous music that makes Puccini such a genius,” conductor Ari Pelto said.

Puccini broke from a tradition of writing operas about wars, treason and treachery sung by kings, duchesses, and their servants. He chose to portray everyday life, writing what is called verismo opera. “La Boheme” begins with the most ordinary action, searching for a lost door key in the dark.

Pelto’s taken with Puccini’s “truth of expression of feelings,” he told a group of opera-goers at the company’s “Spotlight on Opera” discussion Monday at the St. Louis Ethical Society.

There’s “nothing artificial, nothing manipulated, I find it totally not manipulative,” he said. “The music comes from inside, from some deep emotional place.”

Opening night is sold out but seats remain for the eight subsequent performances. Since the show premiered in 1896 at the Teatro Regio, in Turin, Italy, it has remained popular -- running 5872 weeks, by O’Leary’s calculation.

“I defy you to find a piece of musical theater that has had a longer run,” O'Leary said. His personal favorite, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” for example, was rarely presented during decades of disfavor.

“La Boheme” with its romantic emotions and uplifting comic relief is a fine choice of opera lovers wishing to introduce the opera to newcomers, stage director Tim Ocel said.

Here are a few ways to measure its popularity. For many nights in 2003 in New York, “La Boheme” was playing to sold-out house at three New York venues: to 3,500 a night at the Metropolitan Opera in director Franco Zeffirelli's production, to 27,00 a night at the New York City Opera, and to 1,800 a night on Broadways in Baz Luhrmann’s production.

“That’s 8,000 seats a night and they were all filled,” O’Leary said. The Broadway production won two Tonys. A few years earlier in 1996 Jonathan Larson transformed “La Boheme” story into the rock musical “Rent,” which plays at the Fox June 2 to 7. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rent” and its subsequent movie follow the “La Boheme” story line – not its music.

Few question the power of “La Boheme” to move hearts. O’Leary has directed the opera and estimates that he has seen it start-to-finish in excess of 60 times. Last week he sat through the company’s first tech rehearsal watching it in order, start-to-finish. Puccini overwhelmed him. Again.

“I was completely worked up, sobbing -- as quietly as possible,” he said.

The opera will have eight more performances concluding with a matinee June 27.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer, has written about opera for three decades.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.