Boheme La La La at Opera Philadelphia

Helping Opera Live in the 21st Century

By: - May 11, 2023

Opera Philadelphia is ahead of the curve in keeping the operatic form alive and relevant. New operas and altered operas inevitably raise the question: What is opera?  Music drives a story or an idea. That is at opera’s heart.  

La Boheme, one of the world’s most often performed works, started as “scenes” written by Henri Murger.  When Puccini decided to write an opera based on the “scenes,” he focused on the love relationship between two bohemians.  Alterations to the underlying property occur mainly in the first and fourth acts.  Love blossoms in Act One. Death descends in Act Four.  

The opera’s music is also created as scenes.  This makes the backward flip possible without violating the composer.  In fact, because the most beautiful arias (and of course, because it is Puccini, all of them are) end the opera.  In past productions, I haven’t cried at the death, but I had tears in my eyes at the end of the Opera Philadelphia production (Act One)  because the singing was so ineffably moving.

At first blush, it might seem unnecessary to ask why the audience loved La Boheme stern to stem at Opera Philadelphia.  It was a wonderful production.  The singing was first-rate throughout.  Particularly Philadelphia native Kate Goodrich as Mimi offered a rich and detailed take on the role.

Pared down sets, with one bold brushstroke representing a painter, and a slant of neon creating a roof, help focus us on the music. Do we pay more attention because it was being sung out of the accustomed sequence?  Do the street scenes early on make us feel warmer on Christmas Eve because they are fun and we know we’re moving backward into love and away from death?  

Why does not matter.  What counts is that this flipped Boheme is brilliant in conceit and execution.  Originating in Detroit with Yuval Sharon, the only very mild criticism might be that Boheme is one of the few operas people will go to without fixing.  (Yet ticket sales for Metropolitan Opera's current staging are sluggish.)

This production is laden with ideas that could shake up the opera world in a way that Peter Brook’s pared down, four character Carmen did not.  Now opera is desperate for an audience. In 1998 opera was still popular.  Brook reduced the orchestra to chamber size, at fourteen. Berlioz's incredible orchestration talents were left a bit threadbare. Yet, focus on the four principal characters, and killing toreador Escamillo were strokes of genius and remain suggestive for the cuts extra long operas will need to attract more than a small, hardcore audience in the future.

This new Boheme, thru played without intermissions, clocks in at under two hours. Only one minor cut was made. 

A narrator threads through the scenes, telling us what is happening, and asking what-if questions. He is called Wanderer and is on stage for less than five minutes, but his guiding hand and voice help lead the audience. His text is taken from Murger’s novel. 

Here is the setup:  They called her Mimì…but she didn’t know why. The poet Rodolfo loved her more than anything, but at this point in our story, the two  have separated, and quite some time has passed since he’s heard a word from her. Maybe it all could have turned out differently.. The friends have lived lonely lives. Ah, the bohemian life…So joyous, yet so terrible!

Later he asks questions.  At Momus cafe: What would have happened if Mimi had stayed silent? Just the right number of words to guide us. 

Orchestra members under the stalwart and compelling Corrado Rovaris loved performing.  The audience, some newcomers and some old hands at opera, greeted the performance rapturously.  A few critics need to find a way to dampen spirits over this new approach, initiated by Yuval Sharon at the Detroit Opera, who directed with a sure hand in Philadelphia.  They are a minority.