Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of An Officer and a Gentleman
Rothstein's vision of the opera, in keeping with Theater Latté Da's esthetic, is a beautifully realized staging with a focus on core characters, narrative, and emotional tenor, free of spectacle or effects. In 2017, Minnesota Opera mounted a gorgeous La Bohème, which boasted a thirty-six member chorus in addition to a fourteen-member children's chorus, along with the full opera orchestra. Rothstein places just six performers on stage aside from the named characters, including a lone boy taking the place of those fourteen children. A superb five-piece onstage band directed by Sonja Thomson plays enticingly pared-down orchestrations devised by Joseph Schlefke for Theatre Latté Da's 2005 production of La Bohème. The instrumentation includes piano, guitar, violin, woodwinds and accordion, the latter sending a distinctive air of street life to the occasion. The overall result is, rather than grand and effusive, a La Bohème that is elegant, focused and deeply personal.
In four acts, performed with one intermission, the opera follows a group of struggling artists and philosophers–those we may call "bohemians"–in Paris. Puccini set the opera in the 1830s, a time of revolutionary change in the City of Light. Rothstein moves the timeframe up some 110 years to Paris under Nazi occupation, certainly another time of change that placed artistic freedom, along with every other freedom, under siege. While this updating does not alter the narrative, it makes us mindful of a lifestyle, and life itself, balancing on a precipice. Small touches that alert us to the Nazi presence–a swastika armband on a guard, a character identified as a Jew by the yellow star he must wear–maintain this context without in any way overshadowing the entirety of the story.
La Bohème opens on Christmas Eve in a freezing garret where four friends–a poet, a painter, philosopher, and a musician–strive to live lives in pursuit of art, deep thoughts, and pleasure. The story centers around two couples. Rodolfo, the poet, encounters a seamstress called Mimi in circumstances writers of romantic comedies call "meet cute." An intense love blossoms at once, nurtured by Rodolfo's gift for poetic expression of his yearnings. Marcello, the painter, has an on-and-off relationship with the tempestuous Musetta. At the start of La Bohème they are apart, with Musetta in the company of a dull but wealthy suitor. She and Marcello cross paths and, after some play-acting to the contrary, their passions reignite. It remains rough going for the pair, with Musetta's independent streak at odds with Marcello's possessiveness.
Meanwhile, Mimi has become seriously ill and Rodolfo pulls away, unable to face the prospect of her dying. In counseling his friend, Marcello states that a "lighter" relationship, like what as he has with Musetta, is preferable to the intensity of Rodolfo and Mimi's feelings. Marcello and Musetta can bicker, then come back together, picking up where things left off, but Rodolfo and Mimi's love demands all-consuming commitment. It is, perhaps, a purer love, but one that exacts a price. This contrast in the ways love can play its hand between two people is seen in another light when Musetta, who has seemed the least constant in her affections, proves her goodness by reaching out to comfort and aid Mimi in her time of need.
The superb cast brings an abundance of opera experience to the stage, with the roles of Rodolfo, Mimi and Musetta double cast in this production. On opening night, Benjamin Dutcher, a veteran of both opera and musical theater, was Rodolfo. He brings a strong, clear tenor voice to Puccini's beautiful melodies, along with a capacity to express the depth of emotion that falls, as if from the sky, as Rodolfo is stricken with love. Siena Forest was Mimi, with a sweet, somewhat softer soprano, suitable for the reserved seamstress who nonetheless gives her heart fully to her love, well expressed by Forest. Bergen Baker shows Musetta's brio with a brasher, though pleasing, soprano, conveying a liberated woman's independence, but in the end, also her heart.
Tony Potts, with an appealing baritone voice, portrays Marcello as a laid-back artist, seeking pleasures and drawing on a sense of humor to abide with Musetta's stormy behavior. Rodolfo Nieto's Colline (the philosopher) and Justin Anthony Spanner's Schaunard (the musician) both sport rich bass voices, and present themselves well as giddy comrades in celebration early on, and later expressing somber moods as the story veers toward tragedy. Bradley Greenwald, known for his rich baritone, has a splendid turn as Benoit, the artists' landlord, who is comically undone by his vanity.
Design elements are wonderful, as can be counted on at Latté Da. In the middle of the cold-water garret that opens Act I is a long table on which sits scale models of Parisian landmarks–the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph and others–formed of what looks like white plaster, creating an affect that, despite their poverty, those who live there have full access to the magic and romance of their city. In Act IV, when the narrative returns to the garret, these models are used to stunning effect. Along with the garret, a café setting for Act II and a courtyard setting for Act III, all the work of scenic designer Michael Hoover, are marvelous.
Rich Hamson has conceived period costumes that are perfection for the characters and their stations in life, giving Musetta an especially striking outfit for her Act II entrance–and let's not forget her wig (the work of Paul Toni), making her appear to be aping Jean Harlow's platinum glamour. Grant E. Merges' lighting provides for the wide swaths of moods throughout the opera, serving especially well in a scene in which all the lights have gone out in the garret.
La Bohème is based on stories by French writer Henry Murger in the mid 1800s. Upon their success, Murger adapted these into a play and, in 1851, a successful novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème. Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa collaborated with Puccini, writing the libretto for the opera which premiered in Turin in 1896. This libretto has been translated by Rothstein, presented in English surtitles, with opera's poetic language as well as its abundant humor well captured.
With a story that fills the heart, delivered though rapturous music and beautifully realized on stage, this La Bohème is a wonderful occasion. As the bohemians it depicts relish their pleasures, this production is one to be savored.
La Bohème runs through February 27, 2022, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $49.00. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID. Members of Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union - $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. For tickets and information, call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Music: Giacomo Puccini; Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa; Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Sonja Thompson; New Orchestrations: Joseph Schlefke; Set Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Makeup, Wig and Hair Design: Paul Toni; Surtitle Translation: Peter Rothstein; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Sound Supervisor: Nicholas Tranby; Properties Supervisor: Abbee Warmboe; Costume Supervisor: Amber Brown; Lighting Supervisor: Jessica Mrovka; Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Managers: Z Makila and Briana Rose Lee; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Bergen Baker* (Musetta/street vendor/farm woman), Corissa Bussian* (Mimi), Benjamin Dutcher* (Rodolfo), Siena Forest* (Mimi), Bradley Greenwald (Benoit/waiter/street sweeper), Anna Hashizume (nanny/farm woman), Katherine Henly* (Musetta/street vendor/farm woman), Andrew Nalley (Alcindoro/street vendor/gate official), Rodolfo Nieto (Colline), Morrow Piper* (a boy), James Plante (Parpignol/street sweeper), Tony Potts (Marcello), Noah Scharback* (a boy), Justin Anthony Spenner (Schaunard), David Walton* (Rodolfo), Amy Wolf (street vendor/farm woman).
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity Association