How long does it take Mimì the seamstress and Rodolfo the poet to fall in love?
By the clock, it might be just a couple of minutes, five at most, between first encounter and soaring love song. That presents a dramatic pickle solved masterfully in David Gately’s production of Atlanta Opera’s “La Bohème,” which opened Saturday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and runs three more performances through October 10. Although it’s not among the 31-year-old opera company’s most balanced productions — Gregory Vajda’s conducting was weak on opening night, with rippling consequences — the show will likely improve in subsequent performances and is recommended. The opera’s tragic ending is performed with an intensity of emotion that’s hard to surpass.
Played linearly, as stand-and-sing opera, Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” can feel manipulative — with implausible emotional situations and unearned climaxes — unless the stage director provides a little back story for the characters. That sentimentality, sometimes mistaken for kitsch, turned off several generations of modernists to Puccini, who was always popular with audiences but less respected among the “serious” arts crowd than, say, Verdi, Rossini or Bellini, his Italian antecedents. (Even after Italian verismo opera reached its twilight and was supplanted in the public imagination by Italian neo-realist filmmakers like Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini, Puccini didn’t get his fullest due until stage directors started tweaking the story lines, adding a little more realism to the verismo.)
So while Mimi and Rodolfo declare their love for each other within a few minutes of her entrance in Act 1, Gately throws in some shrewd back story. It’s done subtly. The pretty and petite Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio, still in her 20s, inhabits the role of Mimi, portraying her as a mature woman — in clear contrast to the callower bohemian artiste boys. There’s warmth in the lower, conversational end of her range, too, with a glint of steel in her tone, although her tone tended to get a little dry when she opened up in the arias. Still, she’s a delightful presence, her expression compelling, her way with language understandably effortless. (Photos by Tim Wilkerson.)
Mimi is often played as a naif who knocks at her upstairs neighbor’s door hoping to light her extinguished candle. She meets Rodolfo for the first time. Instantly attracted, he drives the romance forward, blowing out the candle so they’re in darkness, feigning to find her lost key (which he might have hidden). In Gately’s plausible scenario, the two have obviously encountered each other before — they live in the same decrepit building on Montmartre — and the chemistry has been simmering long before the opera starts. Here Mimi’s candle goes out a second time because she blew it out, and Rodolfo does the same. It was one of many small but potent directorial touches, fusing the character into the drama.
Elsewhere, Gately’s attention to the score was felt as pure spectacle. In Act 2, at the bustling cafe on Christmas Eve, Musetta (sung radiantly by soprano Jan Cornelius, at left, with a waiter) and the painter Marcello (baritone Timothy Kuhn in compelling voice) are quarreling as off-again lovers. Just before she launches into “Quando me’n vo,” the famous “Musetta’s Waltz,” the harp plinks out several notes which here correspond to Musetta’s flicking wine from her fingers at Marcello.
Here’s a link to my full AJC preview, discussing Atlanta Opera’s precarious finances and eavesdropping on a “Bohème” rehearsal.
In my newspaper review, I was delighted to mention Atlanta bass John LaForge, “who sang the tiny boffo roles of Benoit (the duped landlord) and Alcindoro (the duped rich guy) almost to perfection — playfully serious with rounded, booming tones — and sounded here even better than his recent portrayal of Orgon in Capitol City Opera’s ‘Tartuffe.’”
But this “Bohème” really “came together in the final act, as Mimì lay dying and her chums gather around and grapple with their own feelings. Puccini’s orchestra alerts us to her death with an icy shiver, and, as her hand-warming muff fell to the floor, I suspect there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”