Austere look, strong voices in Opera Memphis' "La Boheme"
For all its romantic associations, "La Boheme" remains cherished by opera fans because the characters are relatable and the story – about a small group of struggling artists who have little more than love to help them get by – resonates with anyone who has ever held artistic ambitions.
Opera Memphis' current revival at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre – the company's first "Boheme" since 2003 – scales down the grand dreaminess for which some productions are known. The set, by Peter Dean Beck, evokes a concrete, pitiless world where, at its brightest, the lighting is austere and direct.
The setting amplifies the poverty of the characters who still try to fill this cold, gray space with high spirits and warm camaraderie, whether it's in the frozen garret where the poet Rodolfo burns his play for heat, or the snowy street where Musetta and her lover Marcello argue under the stars.
Ned Canty's stage direction avoids operatic pomp; the male characters are old chums who casually divide their meals and support each other's penniless pursuits. They appear very much the kind of friends who would share a table at pub trivia, each bringing his own expertise: art, music, philosophy, literature, etc. This image is especially true as they sit together outdoors at Cafe Momus watching the shoppers pass by in the second act. It's a busy, comically organic stage picture that never looks too choreographed.
Musically, no one singer in the production jumps out of the frame. If anything, Canty's cast is a well-matched group.
The complementary voices of Eric Barry (as Rodolfo) and Angela Fout (Mimi) blend beautifully in the famous first act duet "O soave fanciulla." Though Fout's character is fragile of health, her voice is anything but weak.
Levi Hernandez (Marcello) and Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez (Musetta) have a natural chemistry as the jealous lovers.
Leading the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ari Pelto moves at an assertive pace and is never indulgent with the score even, occasionally, when a little indulgence could benefit some of the opera's multi-layered drama.
When Colline (Matthew Curran) sings a farewell ode to the beloved coat that he is about to pawn, the aria should be ironically melodramatic, at least to begin with. But in this production, Curran plays it straight. It sounds pretty, but perhaps doesn't expand on the complexity of Colline's sentiment.
The music in this "La Boheme" doesn't disappoint in terms of polish. Solid, steady performances keep Puccini's score fresh and relevant.