La Bohème Continues to Sing at Houston Grand Opera

Dimitri Pittas and Katie Van Kooten.
Dimitri Pittas and Katie Van Kooten.
Photo by Felix Sanchez

See our interview with Katie Van Kooten.

The setup:

La Bohème, Puccini's eternally fresh opera (1896), never shows its age. Among the world's most beloved and performed works, this radiantly romantic tearjerker set among a community of struggling artists in Belle Époque Paris (poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, musician Schaunard, philosopher Colline, paper flower maker Mimi and prostitute Musetta) never fails to make an impression. Houston Grand Opera's new production, in collaboration with San Francisco Opera and Canadian Opera Company, keeps this musical warhorse on a slow, steady track, but only finds the romantic fire -- and the heartache -- within the supporting roles.

The execution:

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Soprano Katie Van Kooten (Mimi), tall and imposing, cuts an imperious figure onstage. As she so brilliantly demonstrated last season when she bowled over the audience (and the nominal star of the show, Joyce DiDonato) as haughty Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Mary Stuart, she can command the stage while spinning vocal filigree with the best of them. Her voice is large and supple. What she can never do is fade into the wallpaper, like frail, downtrodden Mimi, who, while tossing off Puccini's arching phrases of awakening love, is inevitably consumed by tuberculosis. While she coughs convincingly and acts demurely like the sickly young thing Mimi is supposed to be, Van Kooten can't hide that powerhouse voice. You can hear her all over Paris. This young woman is as far away from death as one can be.

As her besotted boyfriend Rodolfo, tenor Dimitri Pittas has a more difficult time negotiating through Puccini's ardent vocal lines. He never quite manages to get there smoothly; we hear the effort, not the passion. He's also saddled with a really bad wig, all marcelled like a young Liszt fresh from the stylist, which doesn't help his characterization as hot-blooded young swain.

Fortunately, the production is warmed with the heat from baritone Joshua Hopkins and soprano Heidi Stober as jealous lovers Marcello and Musetta. They supply the real juice in this production, and the opera breathes easy with them around. All their scenes together are infused with that on-again/off-again, can't-live-with-'em/can't-live-without-'em attitude, supplied in spades by librettists Giacosa and Illica (later to co-write Puccini's Tosca and Madame Butterfly) whose wise and spikey observations about love make this opera seem so timely.

Stober's show-stopping aria, the famous waltz, "Quando me'n vo'," wherein she brazenly flirts with Marcello while on the arm of her latest sugar daddy, was packed with delightful touches as she paws the smoldering Marcello and seduces us all with her bubbly lyric voice. Hopkins equally impressed with his virile baritone and agile stage presence, always on the lookout for Musetta's wandering eye. The other compatriots who share the drafty garret were adroitly limned by bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as musician Schaunard, and bass Vuyani Mlinde as thoughtful Colline, whose comic, tender farewell to his overcoat, "Vecchia zimarra," highlights the last act. Baritone Hector Vasquez did double duty, playing both philandering landlord Benoit and Musetta's old roué Alcindoro. He blustered wonderfully in both.

Young maestro Evan Rogister keeps Puccini's lush score on medium flame instead of the usual roiling boil that this work cries for - the standard set by originating maestro, the legendary and incandescent Arturo Toscanini who conducted the opera's world premiere in Turin, Italy. Under Rogister, the impetuous fire in Puccini's magnificent score is somewhat banked and tamped down.

Director John Caird, Tony winner for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, glosses these bohemians with good-natured clowning and a deep sense of love among them all, keeping the stage relatively uncluttered and our focus always on what's important. The traditional design by David Farley uses a background of tilted artist's canvasses on which to lay the scenes, but what's with those enveloping grey swags and thick curtains that frame the action? And while the four struggling artists might not have money to buy new clothes from one act to the next, Musetta and even Mimi have flings with wealthy suitors. Certainly, they would have purchased new dresses by Act IV.

The verdict:

By no means the definitive interpretation of this musical masterpiece, there's enough Puccini in evidence to let us newly appreciate the opera's glories that keep it so fresh and loved. Youthful dreams and wistful yearning infuse the music. The artfully told story, adapted from Henri Murger's more gritty newspaper serial and later novelization, Scènes de la vie de bohème, still grips us with the neo-romantic picture it paints of these friends' everyday struggles in life and love. In another one hundred years, La Bohème will still sing to us.

Puccini's paean to love among the young plays October 21, 27 and 30 and November 2, 4 and 10 at Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$342.

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