An Artist's Life, and Love

When La Boheme premiered 100 years ago, it was set during the reign of King Louis Philippe, who ruled France from 1830 to 1848. Though time has passed in the real world, in the world of La Boheme it has tended to stay the mid-1800s. For its new production, though, HGO decided to pull the action a little closer to the modern era, setting the events at the end of the 19th century during the time of the French Third Republic -- that is, during the time when the opera was actually composed.

Since the theme of the struggling artist is universal to all ages, the choice to update the setting does little to detract from the opera. In fact, it makes the work seem even more relevant. Moreover, the lavish sets -- in the first and fourth acts, the still incomplete Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background -- effectively evoke the spirit of the age. HGO's new La Boheme is based on an original production by Academy Award-winning director Herbert Ross, who has created a vision of life among a group of four struggling artists in late 19th-century Paris that is as convincing as it is captivating. The sets are magnificent, realistically conveying the image of the seedy side of fin-de-siecle Paris. The look is a nice touch, and the setting's air of authenticity can't help but spill over into opera itself, making it seem less a piece of work that's admired at a remove and instead something more intimate and personal.

The many fans of Giacomo Puccini's tragic masterpiece will find Houston Grand Opera's sparkling new production superb. But even those who aren't so fond of this oft-performed work should find the performance highly rewarding.

The cast is headed by two rising operatic stars, tenor Vincenzo La Scola as the poet Rodolfo and soprano Cecilia Gasdia as Mimi, his ill-fated lover. For a while during his student days, La Scola lived in a bell tower similar to the garret occupied by Rodolfo and his friends in Puccini's opera; as a result, La Scola says, he can identify closely with his character. Friday, La Scola was totally convincing. Moreover, he sang magnificently. Gasdia, best known for her interpretations of bel canto roles, turned in a fine performance as Mimi. She sang beautifully, and her portrayal of the gravely ill woman was compelling.

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Also turning in solid performances were baritone Frank Hernandez as the painter Marcello; mezzo-soprano Stella Zambalis as Musetta, Marcello's lover; bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells as the philosopher Colline; Hector Vasquez as the musician Schaunard; bass Joszef Gregor in the dual role of the landlord Benoit and state councilor Alcindoro; and tenor Gabriel Gonzalez as the toy vendor Parpignol.

The first act opens on Christmas Eve in the cold and dingy Parisian garret where Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard live. Rodolfo is alone in the dwelling when Mimi, a neighbor, comes asking for a light for her candle. Instantly smitten, Rodolfo touches Mimi's hand and begins to tell her about himself in the aria, "Che gelida manina"; La Scola's rendition drew the most enthusiastic ovation of the night. Mimi tells of her love for flowers and her longing for the warmth of spring in the charming aria, "Mi chiamano Mimi." Gasdia's interpretation of this number was tender and moving. Mimi and Rodolfo profess their love for each other in the beautiful duet, "O soave fanciulla." La Scola and Gasdia offered a heartfelt rendition of this number to bring the act to a touching close.

The festive second act takes place in the Latin Quarter, where Rodolfo and Mimi have joined Marcello, Colline and Schaunard at the Cafe Momus for a Christmas Eve celebration. The choral singing was outstanding here, and helped accentuate the scene's holiday atmosphere. Musetta makes her appearance in this act and sings the opera's most famous number, "Quando me'n vo' soletta," also known as "Musetta's Waltz." The other main characters ultimately join Musetta in singing this lighthearted number. Zambalis and her colleagues offered a rousing and spirited rendition that was one of the evening's highlights.

In the third act, which takes place in February near a tavern on the outskirts of Paris, the mood turns somber. Mimi and Rodolfo have quarreled, and she has come to the tavern in search of her lover. The two attempt unsuccessfully to break off their relationship in the beautiful aria, "Adio, dolce svegliare." La Scola and Gasdia sang this lovely number with conviction and emotion.

In the final act, which takes place mainly outside the garret home of the four artists in the spring, Rodolfo and Marcello reflect nostalgically on the good times they had with their now-estranged lovers in the duet, "Ah, Mimi, tu pui non torni"; La Scola and Hernandez sang this number with commitment and passion. A comic interlude is abruptly interrupted when Musetta brings in Mimi, who is sick and dying of consumption. Wells offered a fine rendition of the plaintive aria, "Vecchia zimarra," where Colline agrees to pawn his coat to get money to buy medicine for Mimi. Before she dies, Mimi and Rodolfo reconcile in the duet, "Sono andati," which repeats several of the themes heard in the first act. Gasdia and La Scola sang this number with warmth and tenderness.

The production has two intermissions. Since all the acts are relatively short, the second hardly seemed necessary. Still, this detracts only slightly from an otherwise solid production. La Boheme's many fans will find this new adaptation highly memorable. And those who might have cringed at the thought of seeing yet another production of the opera will probably be won over, too.

La Boheme plays through February 4 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-

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