La Boheme Shines With A Young Cast at Opera in the Heights

The set-up:
Right now, the youngest show in town is its oldest: Giacomo Puccini's 1896 La Boheme. playing only two more performances at Opera in the Heights.

The execution:
This eternally youthful work, with its high-spirits tempered by that wrenching finale by librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (who would go on to pen Butterfly and Tosca), is always classified as the world's most popular opera, but it now looks – and sounds – as if freshly composed. Under maestro Eiki Isomura, with a superlative age-appropriate cast who seem to be actual roommates and lovers, this “chestnut” has been nipped and tucked, botoxed, and rejuvenated. Boheme hasn't been resuscitated or even resurrected, it's been revivified.

Yes, the lush romantic orchestration has been reduced, beautifully so, by Francis Griffin, but the OH orchestra plays Puccini's haunting melodies like the Philharmonic. And unlike the Metropolitan Opera's gargantuan Franco Zeffirelli production – in which the entire population of Paris's Left Bank is on stage for the Cafe Momus act – OH's much more intimate take showcases what's really important in any Boheme: the singers and how they react to each other.

Director Lynda Keith McKnight, responsible for many of OH's most impressively thought-out productions from the last few seasons, lets her bohemians loose in an imaginative hippie Paris of the 1960s. This works beautifully, as if Puccini meets Jonathan Larson's Rent. So we're treated to Robert Swedberg's surtitles that reference “groovy,” “chicks,” “bad karma,” and “you're a downer;” we relish the rush of Macy Lyne's bell bottom costumes with headbands and Janice Joplin boas; we relive Torsten Louis' begrimed garret with its water pipe and Philco radio.

But best of all, we get an evocative, vim-filled cast who would be welcomed on any world stage. They bring this sympathetic potpourri of dreamers, schemers, flirts, and woe-be-gone jealous lovers to amazing life. They really do seem to be these characters, not over-stuffed divas and divos who have left their youth many operas ago.

As Mimi, slim and agile soprano Amanda Kingston has a radiant, expressive voice, so it's no surprise that horny young writer Rodolfo, tenor Dane Suarez, would instantly fall for this comely waif who crafts flowers out of paper. Can you smell the patchouli? Suarez has boyish charm for days, a lively mop top, and a golden throat that can toss off his character's ardent phrases with poet's ease. Sharing the heat-starved upper apartment: baritone Blas Canedo-Gonzalez, as painter Marcello, who hasn't gotten over slutty Musetta (feisty soprano Natalie Polito); ardent tenor Thomas Gunther, as musician Schaunard; and deep-dish voiced bass Benjamin LeClair, as philosopher Colline, who sells his beloved coat to pay for Mimi's doctor bills. You can almost imagine him checking the pockets for a wayward joint before he pawns it.

Rounding out this well-rounded cast: baritone Cesar Torruella, as comic Alcindoro, sugar daddy to Musetta; tenor Calvin Harris, as festive Parpignol; bass Riley Vogel, as Doganiere; a lively children's chorus under the direction of Monica Isomura; and the OH chorus under the direction of Mary Box.

The verdict:
This spirited production is like a fountain of youth. Naturally, Puccini doesn't need it since his melodies will never be far from the stage, but Opera in the Heights gets younger and younger as the seasons roll on. Great music is timeless; so are some opera productions. This one is ageless.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. November 17 and 19 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For more information call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $15 to $75.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover