Review: Pérez, Costello Lead Youthful Cast in Classic, Cinematic “Boheme” Production: Los Angeles Opera, May 12, 2012

For the sixth and final offering of the Los Angeles Opera’s 2011-12 season it revived one of its most esteemed productions, the 1993 “La Boheme” created by the late Hollywood film director Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias), with an extraordinary array of costumes by the late Peter Hall, and sets by Gerard Howland. Ross approached  Puccini’s story of young love in Paris in 1889 [the clue to the year is the partially built Eiffel Tower, rising above the Champ de Mars].

The production is one of those great productions that I believe should be designated a “world treasure”, presenting the most popular of Italian operas as a cinematic experience, as finely crafted as the best of class Hollywood romantic films. Some of my observations about Ross’ masterpiece (whose revival was directed by Gregory A. Fortner),  are recorded following the review of the vocal performances.

Depicting the young and poor in Paris

Hollywood films are noted for enlisting attractive actors capable of projecting emotions to the films’ audiences, whereas one expects those who cast operas to concentrate on finding artists capable of singing the demanding (and unmiked) vocal music of which opera performance is comprised.

However, one of the joys of contemporary operatic performance is that the number of singers worldwide with the capability to perform opera well has never been greater, so operatic casting directors have a better opportunity than any other time in the history of opera to consider, besides the technical brilliance of the singing, the artists’ believability in their roles.

The L. A. Opera cast, dominated by not-yet and just-turned thirtysomethings, produced an enchantingly sung, engagingly acted performance.

The young lovers central to the opera’s plot, Ailyn Pérez, the Mimi, and Stephen Costello, the Rodolfo, are emerging as one of the world’s favorite operatic married couples, and believably exuded all of the range of emotions – sexual attraction, instantaneous love, jealousy, and, for Rodolfo, grief at realizing that a partner is seriously ill – that Puccini has built into this most enduring of operatic love stories.

The evening was the occasion for a felicitous Los Angeles Opera debut for Conductor Patrick Summers (available in a month clear of his Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera conducting obligations).

The “Boheme” performance was a compelling one, which would surely be memorable either as a “first opera” experience for newcomers to the art form, or to those (like myself) who have seen many of the greatest Mimis, Rodolfos, Musettas, Marcellos and Collines of recent decades.

[Below: The poet Rodolfo (Stephen Costello, left) has had an unexpected visit from his neighbor, Mimi (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Ailyn Pérez’ Mimi

I previously had seen Pérez excel in Gounod’s lyric soprano roles that mix coloratura brilliance with dramatic passion [see my review at Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011.] Puccini’s heroines typically require a heavier vocal weight (and, often therefore, a diminished coloratura capability), than Gounod’s, but Mimi is a role that has been associated with both great lyric and spinto sopranos.

My first Mimi – when I was a college sophomore – was Victoria de los Angeles, whose repertory at a comparable stage of her career was similar to that of Perez’.  In fact, Pérez, superficially, and in some poses, more than superficially, resembles the great Catalan lyric soprano in her prime. Like de los Angeles, Pérez brings to Mimi a vulnerability, an expressiveness that makes Perez’ performance of Mimi’s calling card aria Mi chiamano Mimi such a work of art.

Perez’ dramatic and vocal gifts were evident in the incredibly beautiful third act duet with Marcello (Polish baritone Artur Rucinski in his American debut), during which Pérez gets to display her power voice, soon to be followed by  her ardent makeup duet with Costello’s Rodolfo.

The final act, in which Pérez portrays Mimi on her deathbed, was a triumph of dramatic intensity, in which the artist must convincingly project Mimi’s dying breaths throughout the large Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

(Technically, it was not Pérez’ Los Angeles Opera debut, since she participated in the company’s world premiere performances of Holdridge’s “Concierto para Mendez”, but for most opera-going Angelenos, this will be their introduction to the gifted soprano.)

For my interviews with the artist, see Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 and Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2.

[Below: Mimi (Ailyn Pérez, front left) tries on a bonnet that Rodolfo (Stephen Costello, front center) has bought for her; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Stephen Costello’s Rodolfo

In an age that abounds in great lyric tenors, I regard Costello as in the highest rank of the vocal type. He is unexcelled in the Donizetti roles (see my reviews of his Devereux and Percy at The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009 and Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Beautifully Sung “Anna Bolena” Completes Dallas Opera’s Tudor Trilogy – November 14, 2010). He adds yet another Donizetti lover to his repertory, Tonio in “La Fille du Regiment”, in San Diego in January 2013.

Costello is also brilliant as the ardent lover in each of Gounod’s two great operas that he performs so convincingly with his real-life partner, Perez (see Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010 and Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011.)

Rodolfo is a role that straddles the lyric and spinto tenor repertories. In my opinion, Costello is such an exemplar for the lyric French and lyric Italian roles that Rodolfo should be only an occasional assignment in a special situation, like his debut with this company.

But Costello’s skill in playing the passionate youth of Gounod and Donizetti brings to his Rodolfo a believability, particularly in Herbert Ross’ ebullient production, that made the evening so rewarding. As the occasion of a Los Angeles Opera debut, a few miles from the center of the Hollywood film industry, it was a savvy role choice.

For my interview with the artist, see Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.

 Janai Brugger’s Musetta

Fresh off of winning the 2012 Metropolitan National Council Auditions, Janai Brugger fulfilled both the vocal and comedic requirements of her assignment as the second act’s scene-stealer, Musetta. In this production, Musetta gets multiple opportunities to be the center of attention, arriving on a vehicular contraption, singing sometimes at her table with the mega-rich, exploited sugar daddy Alcindoro, sometimes at the Bohemian’s table, and at another time appearing on a second story balcony.

Her great show-stopper, “Musetta’s Waltz” was performed most amusingly, the production channeling Hello, Dolly! as a cadre of five waiters run from place to place in an attempt to keep up with the diva’s shenanigans.

[Below: Musetta (Janai Brugger, standing on table); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Other Cast Members

With special commendations for Artur Rucinski’s singing of Marcello’s third act duet with Pérez’ Mimi, and by Robert Pomakov’s affecting farewell to his old coat, to be sold to pay for Mimi’s medicine, the remaining cast did a great job, of both singing and comic byplay. (One sometimes forgets just how much of “La Boheme” is designed as comedy. I suspect that there are actually as many, and perhaps more, richly comedic parts of “Boheme” than of Puccini’s only official effort at a comic opera, “Gianni Schicchi”.)

[Below: the Bohemians, Colline (Robert Pomakov, far left), Rodolfo (Stephen Costello, second from left), Schaunard (Museop Kim, standing) and Marcello (Artur Rucinski, right) are at play on their rooftop porch; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Museop Kim was Schaunard. Philip Cokorinos, as is almost always done, sang both the parts of the Landord, Benoit, and Alcindoro. Ben Bliss was Parpignol.

The Staging

The special touches in the staging “Boheme” are very frequent and invariably illuminating. The first and fourth acts display a cutaway of the garret in which the four Bohemians live and in which Mimi dies. But the garret is only a small part of that set, which also encompasses a large rooftop area below the garret, to whom a set of stairs leads. When Schaunard first appears, he is with street urchins who bring firewood.

One can emerge from an unseen staircase that leads to the rooftop level, as Mimi does in the first act, or take shortcuts over a wall to what presumably is an outside staircase, as the Bohemians do on their way to the Cafe Momus. Mimi’s staircase is on the same level as the apartment of the landlord Benoit and  his wife (who steps out to scold Benoit after his humiliating attempt at rent collection upstairs.)

Mimi and Rodolfo descend the stairs from the garret for their duet O soave fanciulla in which the set partially turns to reveal a large full moon.

The scene of the neighborhood of the Cafe Momus is spectacular. It’s not just the cafe, it is an intersection, a crossroads of a vibrant city, with two story buildings at stage left and right separated by the busy streets frequented by clowns and buskers, Parpignol’s kids and the marching band.

In the third act, one sees not only the guardhouse, but the second story apartment in which Musetta and Marcello have their furious – normally offsstage – fight in full view of the audience. In the final act, the Bohemians do their playing and dancing, not in their cluttered garret, but in the rooftop patio area. Here the women residents of the building’s apartments, who use the clothesline stretched across the area’s back walls, stop by to join in the dancing.

At times, pieces of action take place in fromt of a scrim. This permits Rodolfo and Marcello near the beginning of the final act to sing to each other, while evoking the image of their respective loves, Mimi and Musetta. As each is named in the duet, a vision of that woman appears through the scrim.

[Below: Schaunard (Museop Kim, left) and Marcello (Artur Rucinski, second from left) watch as Musetta (Janai Brugger, center) and Rodolfo (Stephen Costello, second from right) comfort the dying Mimi (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Los Angeles Opera production, cast and crew have delivered a truly great performance of “La Boheme”. I recommend it unreservedly.