In the 63rd year of its existence, the Lowell House Opera (LHO) presents a very ambitious staging of Puccini’s classic La Bohème. Working under the aegis of the 18th century German philosopher, poet and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, LHO’s production hopes to prove Marx wrong in his belief that “everything enters history only twice: first as tragedy, then as farce.” La Bohème explores Nietzsche’s proposed third entrance into history: irony.
La Bohème is a four-act opera in which six poverty-stricken artists struggle to find success amidst their bohemian lifestyles. Rodolfo, a poet (Robert Grady) falls in love with a silk flower-maker, Mimi (Susan Brownfield) who is fatally ill. As the opera progresses, Rodolfo and Mimi realize that their relationship cannot last—Rodolfo can not stand by and watch helplessly as Mimi’s consumption steals her away from him. In the end, although Rodolfo and his friends give their most prized possessions, this is not enough to save Mimi’s life.
LHO’s La Bohème remains true to this story from beginning to end. But in placing its story in Harvard Square, it hopes to use the proximity of the “haves,” the resource-rich Harvard community, and the “have-nots,” Rodolfo, Mimi and their friends, to show how the leisure class exploits its underclass on many different levels.
Living underground, in the Harvard Square MBTA station, Rodolfo, Marcello, an artist (Lee M. Poulis ’02), Colline, a philosopher (Alexander Prokhorov) and Schaunard, a musician (David Howse) are inhabitants of one of the busiest and most affluent parts of Boston yet, they have little employment opportunity as artists; their craft is created for and enjoyed only by the leisure class, which derives its leisure from the exploitation of the underclass.
This is where LHO turns Puccini’s work into an ironic one. By presenting this story to a Harvard audience as reflection of itself, LHO attempts to show how its viewers are actively using the lives of the characters portrayed as their entertainment, reinforcing their poverty.
As an opera, LHO’s La Bohème has some very successful elements. The music, both vocal and instrumental, is strong and potent. The set design is both very imaginative and precise. From the exit turnstile in the subway station to the frosted windows of the Hong Kong, viewers are convinced and delighted by the imaginative set conceptions of set designer Gabriel Abraham.
The connection that LHO makes to Harvard Square, although very successful in the physical sense, does not quite achieve the ironic goals of the adaptation. Although the production would like to confront its Harvard audience and its treatment of the poor, it fails to take full advantage of proximity of Rodolfo, Marcello, Mimi and the others to their counterparts in the Ivory Tower. The underground “apartment” that the four men share in the Harvard MBTA stop is the only scene which seems to speak directly to the Harvard elite. Unfortunately, the powerful image and sentiment conveyed by this initial scene is not supported throughout the piece. Scenes occuring in the Hong Kong and Au Bon Pain simply use these places as backdrops from which the story is told rather than integrating them into the show itself. A stronger connection between the lives and the six characters portrayed here and the negligence of the Harvard community might have reinforced the proposed goal of the opera’s adaptation. In this way, a large gap develops between the high ambitions of the opera and its occasionally lackluster physical execution.
In the end, this two hour and 45 minute opera makes for an entertaining evening of good music, a classic story and a few laughs.