Opera Columbus Premieres Vibrant New ‘La Bohème’
Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème has fired audiences’ imaginations since its premiere 125 years ago. This story of struggling bohemians continues to inspire updated versions and adaptations, most famously Jonathan Larson’s Rent premiering 25 years ago.
Opera Columbus continues their 2021 season with a new production of La Bohème directed by Dennis Whitehead Darling and I saw the final preview on Tuesday. Staged at 400 West Rich, this sparkling production features a new English libretto by conductor and pianist Kathleen Kelly.
Audience members wind through hallways of artists’ spaces to reach a cavernous room with a dazzling set by Brian Ruggaber. Opera Columbus took great pains to infuse this production with a sense of place, including their canny use of this century-old factory turned venue/studio assemblage/bar.
They partnered with multiple artists from the 400 West Rich studio complex for open gallery hours prior to each performance, and worked with some on the art throughout the set – Kirsta Niemie Benedetti, FDZ Graffiti, and David Denniston. These alliances speak well to everyone involved and add to the immersive quality of the show.
Darling’s production – with Kelly’s orchestration for two pianos with second pianist Monica Daly – craft a shining testament to the power of this music and its timeless story. Stripping away so much of the additional flash and ornamentation and still communicating the core beauty of La Bohème is also a testament to the remarkable singing of this small cast.
Most of the story orbits Jesus Garcia’s anguished poet Rodolfo and Bizhou Chang’s doomed seamstress Mimi (these characters are played by John David Nevergall and Keyona Willis at some performances) and these two give riveting, powerhouse performances. Watching Chang tear into these moving arias felt like staring into a jet engine, unable to look away and seeing every detail of flame while enveloped in heat. When she and Garcia sang together, those opening lines sliced through the room, melting into one another and flowing over the piano.
There are no weak links in the rest of the cast either, with especially striking work from Patrick Graham’s Schaunard and Ivy Zhou’s Musetta. One of the great pleasures of this Puccini score comes in its surging, stacked harmonies: it was breathtaking hearing the cast’s voices – and the two piano voices – rise together in interlocking mosaic patterns, arguing and laughing through the notes.
La Bohème concerns itself with plagues – the plague of hope, the plague of poverty, and most obviously the plague of tuberculosis – and the way we navigate these tragedies together. The subtle, clever costumes from Austin Conlee include masks which give the proceedings a clever double edge: a crucial safety and psychological security measure that also adds to the vibration of paranoia suffusing the show. Watching actors and singers navigate these physical boundaries in a joyful, mocking death way aided the physical intensity of the show.
Also crucial to the effect of this delightful production is volume. It’s a rock club, warehouse party loud. Frequently the pianos and the cast joust for a space of prime position. That counts toward the physical impact of the show above and beyond the cast leaving and re-entering through the audience.
Some clunkiness in the libretto/translation aside, this was a delightful revisit of one of the first operas I loved. I hope Opera Columbus continues these site-specific reimaginings as we inch closer to whatever normal looks like.
La Bohème runs through May 30 with performances at 7:30 p.m. May 20, 21, 22 and 28, and 2 p.m. May 23 and May 30 and will also be streamed. For tickets and more info, visit operacolumbus.org/laboheme.