The Boston Lyric Opera Transports “La Bohème” to the 1960s

This fall, the Boston Lyric Opera reinterprets one of Giacomo Puccini’s most hallowed pieces: “La Bohème.” Running Oct. 2-11 in the Citi Performing Arts Center, the opera is part of a seasonal lineup that includes reimagined classics and unconventional pieces, such as Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony” and Jules Massenet’s “Werther.” Set against the backdrop of the 1968 Paris student riots, this “La Bohème” seeks to explore the timeless themes of Puccini’s opera while illuminating the universality of human desires.

While the opera’s plotline remains mostly unchanged, director Rosetta Cucchi has found innovative ways to transport “La Bohème” more than 130 years forward into the turbulent atmosphere of 1968 Paris. After every act, a contemporary film clip plays on a projector screen; according to the show program, this choice was inspired by German filmmaker Bertolt Brecht, who used signs and text in many of his movies. In this milieu of political unrest and young idealism, Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) and Rodolfo (Jesus Garcia), young neighbors, explore their fragile yet passionate relationship. Like the original opera, this production explores the chasm between unforgiving reality and an idealized future; Rodolfo and Mimi’s frequent references to a spring that never comes embody the disappointed hopes of the postwar generation.

The stars of the show, Kaduce and Garcia, display a lighthearted chemistry that is powerful enough to convey the emotional impact of the more dramatic moments of the opera. Kaduce’s performance of “Sono andati” in the fourth and final act is truly heart-rending; as Mimi becomes more and more ill with tuberculosis, Kaduce artfully contrasts her fear of mortality with the tenderness she feels for Rodolfo. Garcia also performs admirably in his duets with Kaduce, yet he seems more at home playing the anguished young man than the passionate lover. His duets with his best friend Marcello (Jonathan Byer) are arguably his strongest moments; O Mimì, tu più non torni,” in which Rodolfo and Marcello express their frustration in love, is particularly captivating. However, despite Kaduce and Garcia’s easy rapport, their voices struggle to keep up onstage. On opening night, they performed solidly from the second act onward, but their voices were initially weak“Che gelida manina” and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” lost much of their impact as a result. Garcia’s voice is strained when he ascends into his upper register or projects moreat the most emotionally vital moments of the first actwhile Kaduce’s vibrato is inconsistent and distracting. While Kaduce and Garcia do not add anything innovative to the production, they also do not detract from it; they allow the supporting cast, the true strength of the production, to shine.

The unexpected moments of brotherly banter between Rodolfo and his roommatesMarcello, Colline (Brandon Cedel), and Schaunard (Andrew Garland)are a particular highlight; their jocular and occasionally cynical remarks provide a contrast to the seriousness of Mimi and Rodolfo’s love. Byer especially excels at imbuing his role with charm and presence without taking attention away from the central love story. In Act II, when Marcello’s ex-lover Musetta (Emily Birsan) walks in with another man and sings the sultry “Quando m’en vo” to win back his affections, Marcello is every bit the comically enraged suitor. Birsan is also a pillar of this “La Bohème”; strong from the start, she conveys Musetta’s firm will and soft heart. She switches skillfully from angry banter with Marcello to tender words to comfort the dying Mimi, and she does it all with inexhaustible vivacity. She also uses an especially delightful technique of ending her high notes in little shrieks while quarreling with Marcello, to great humorous effect.

Unfortunately, the show’s staging is also in some aspects unclear. Rodolfo’s flat is filled with a jumble of eerily lighted furniture that blocks natural movement on the stage, to the extent that the two lovers are sometimes almost lost among the miscellany. In the background of several scenes is a large moon with the words “time is an invention” written upon it. A clear attempt at universalizing the themes of Puccini’s opera, the heavy-handedness of this commentary unfortunately continues throughout the rest of the production. In subsequent scenes, the background is replaced by various, equally incongruous collages: one, for example, is a disjointed mass of French cultural references with the title of Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Masculin Féminin” at its center. While the movie is relevant to the dueling forces of political idealism and capitalist comfort that came to the forefront in the student revolt of 1968, the entire collage is painfully unsubtle; it seems that the directors do not trust the audience to interpret the nuances of revolutionary ideology. Altogether, instead of meaningfully recontextualizing Puccini’s opera, the staging becomes a veneer of poorly executed cultural pastiche.

Despite the show’s issues, it successfully illustrates that the longing for love is universal, even if the surrounding cultural and political milieu is not. It clearly portrays themes of youthful idealism, inner turmoil, and human discontent—although at times too clearly. While the production is by no means perfect, its changed setting is thought-provoking and well-chosen, and underlines Puccini’s innate understanding of the constancies of the human heart.

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