Before there was RENT, there was Puccini’s La bohème, perhaps the most popular and certainly one of the most frequently performed operas in history. The University of Maryland School of Music’s Opera Studio mounts a charming and touching production to showcase their MM second-year students. These performers may still be in training, but there voices are already stunning. Giacomo Puccini composed the music and Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for an 1840 premiere in Turin.
The opera takes place over the four month love affair of Rudolfo and Mimi as they meet, fall instantly in love, and Rudolfo draws her into his cheerful group of friends living the bohemian life in 1840’s Paris before things take a turn for the tragic. Director Andrea Dorf McGray says, “This is a story about the human heart.”
McGray creates an intimate production with a large chorus that crowds the stage to conjure perfectly the chaos of a Parisian street of 150 years ago. The set by Jake Ewonus assists in that. It’s a clever jumble of ragged cloth, bare wood and old furniture with a shoddy charm. The focus is the door to their apartment that rotates in a small circle to become a city gate and a shop window through out the opera. Robert Denton designed the lighting and the synergy between it and the set design was impressive. A backdrop of the chimneys of Paris comes to life with lighted smoke and a snowy day is enhanced with both actual snow and a lighted display. The scenes are often lit mostly with plain white spotlights that assist in the impression these characters cannot even afford a proper lamp.
The opera begins with two roommates, Rudolfo (Yoni Rose) and Marcello (Matt Moeller, April 13 & 19 and Andrew Pardini, April 17 & 21). Broke and out of firewood in their apartment on Christmas Eve, they are soon distracted by two friends Colline (Michael Dane) and Schaunard (Matt Moeller, April 17 & 21 and Andrew Pardini, April 13 & 19). The friends have conveniently come into a windfall of firewood and they enjoy their evening and a chance to taunt their landlord, Benoît, who stops by for the rent (that went on to inspire another musical phenomenon over a century later), before heading out to a night on the town. This is a story of the human heart, but it is also a story of friendship and the playful arias and banter between these friends are magical.
Yoni Rose (Rudolfo) has a resonant tenor voice, well-suited to the playful and lyrical Puccini music, though his voice could probably blast an auditorium three times the size and someday soon I’m sure he will have the chance to do just that. His powerful rendition of “Che gelida manina” was spine-chilling.
Matt Moeller (Marcello) is a baritone who already has a great connection between his acting and his music. Emotion and fun seemed to flow through his notes. Rose and Moeller’s duet “O Mimì, tu più non torn” was one of the highlights of this production.
Michael Dane (Colline) is a powerful bass who had a number of zingers that had the audience laughing, which is a feat when you’re sing in Italian with subtitles. His final ode to his coat is very moving.
Andrew Pardini (Schaunard) fills the larger than life shoes of his character well and supports it with a vibrant baritone.
One of the highlights of the piece is those first 10-15 minutes where it is these four men and friends alone, joined briefly by the excellent Andrew Adelsberger as their landlord, sing duets and quartets written for them. Alone, they each have a superior voice, but together, their harmonies are gorgeous. Everyone departs for a night on the town except Rudolfo who meets the star of the show, Mimi (Jazmin Black Grollemund) in one of the best first meetings in all of opera when she needs her candle lit.
Grollemund has a sweet and pleasant soprano that sails right over the impossibly high notes of the role and she embodies this role like she’s been playing Mimi forever. The opera hinges on her charisma and her ability to draw all of these old friends into her aura and Grollemund does this naturally. Their duets, between such well matched singers, are also a delight. They follow his friends to the café where they encounter Marcello’s ex, Musetta (Lauren-Rose King), a whirlwind with fantastic comic timing and one of the most well-recognized solos in opera, “Quando me’n vo’,” popularly known as “Musetta’s Walz,” and she pulls it off with aplomb. The cheeky song as well as much of the script has been modernized on the supertitles that translate the Italian words being sung. For instance, to begin the play, Rudolpho’s complaints are translated as, “I’m frickin’ cold!” It has not gone so modern as to be distracting from the story, however. The street and café are filled with the chorus and a small children’s chorus who sound beautiful and do an admirable job with the rollicking music and complicated staging. Their costumes by Designer Aryna Petrasenko add to the chaos and the beauty with period pieces rich in detail from Schaunard’s dandy scarf to Colline’s leather jacket, and Musetta’s fabulous dresses. The children’s solo with toy seller Parpignol (Alec Donaldson) is a wonderful moment.
The score is a large reason why this opera remains so popular with entertaining and moving pieces, brought to life by the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, which flourishes under the sure direction of Giovanni Reggioli, a long-time conductor with the Washington National Opera as well as an internationally acclaimed voice coach. It’s not hard to see why; every beat is perfect in this production.
This may be the perfect cast for La bohème, full of talented young people at the beginning of their careers and their lives just like the characters they play. That youthful passion and all-consuming love we seem to leave behind as we grow is viscerally real in the hands of these artists. That they make beautiful music and do Puccini justice is just an added bonus.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
La bohème plays through April 21, 2013 at Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts – University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 405-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.