The Parisian cold water garret that the four young Bohemians share in Giacomo Puccini's evergreen opera La Bohème, snoozing through its run at Houston Grand Opera, isn't the only thing without heat. The entire production is lukewarm, glacially paced, and lacks ardor, not the qualities one wants in any Puccini opera, but certainly not in this passionate paean to romance among poor artists striving for success and happiness.
Never out of the rep too long, Bohème (1896) is credited as the world's most popular opera. It's definitely the most produced. But it deserves all its accolades. It grabs you from the first scene where poet Rodolfo burns his latest play to keep the roommates' warm, while artist Marcello pines for fickle lover Musetta. He offers his painting of the parting of the Red Sea to stoke the stove, but Rodolfo says oils stink when burned. Philosopher manque Colline and musician Schaunard share the cold apartment, sharing an impromptu meal from Schaunard's meager earnings as music teacher. It’s their camaraderie that keeps the boys toasty, as Puccini supplies a hefty bouncing lilt to their ardent dreams of love and the future.
Manon Lescaut was Puccini's first great success, but Bohème, conducted at its Turin world premiere by the incandescent Arturo Toscanini, drop kicked the composer into the space left vacant after the death of Italy's opera master Giuseppe Verdi. Puccini was hailed as heir apparent, and he'd soon follow up with Tosca and Madame Butterfly, solidifying his place on Italian opera's pedestal.
Bohème is youth eternalized: big dreams, forever prowling for sex, and somehow making the most with the least. The music shouts out bold and lush: there's passion, in-depth characters, and real feeling to it. It's youthful music, a soft-sell verismo that deals with young adults who don't always know what's good for them, but they're going for it regardless. Rent? Who cares, we'll deal with that tomorrow? The next meal? Well, there's a bit of stale bread left and always cheap wine. And love? Well, that's a problem they all want. They can conquer the world if they can only find that.
Last seen in the 2012-13 season, HGO's production with direction by British whiz John Caird and designed by David Farley, clearly pinspots the six principals, even during the excessively busy Act II Cafe Momus scene, where the entire left bank of Paris celebrates Christmas Eve with a toy seller, a brass band, and an army of opera tykes. But among the skewed oil canvases used as sets, there's not much of a flicker of life in anyone. The singers are good, some very good (Pureum Jo is a standout as tease Musetta), but Rodolfo and Mimi, the nominal stars, don't strike much of a spark.
Tenor Ivan Magri (Rodolfo) blusters around Puccini's ardent melodies, stepping into his top notes as if by ladder. He's much more effective when singing quietly, but that lasts only a short time until he's bellowing away again, pulling out all the stops and not reacting to anyone he's singing to. Soprano Nicole Heaston, as sickly flower maker Mimi, has smoke in her voice but no fire. Her famous intro aria, “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimì") was velvet to the ears, but lacked any sense of personality. It sounded glorious, but it didn't sound like Mimi. But, then she had to react to Magri, whose block-of-wood acting would be a challenge to even a flame-thrower like Callas.
The others were fine, if not especially distinguished. Baritone Michael Sumuel looked and sounded sturdy as Marcello; bass-baritone Federico De Michelis was aptly gaunt as philosopher Colline, who pawns his beloved overcoat to help pay Mimi's doctor bills in his Act IV pleasing aria, “Vecchia zimarra” ("Old coat"); and baritone Geoffrey Hahn, as sprightly musician Schaunard, made an impressive HGO stage debut. He's a first year HGO Studio artist, but cavorted and sang like a veteran. We look forward to his future appearances.
But Bohème was Jo's show from her first entrance at the Cafe Momus, all flounce and flirt, to her final embrace with Marcello at Mimi's bedside. She breezed through “Musetta's Waltz,” throwing off Puccini's soaring melody with grace to spare, while fondling jealous lover Marcello and tempting her sugar daddy of the moment at the same time. She was always the most alive on stage, eminently watchable, and a pleasure to listen to.
Puccini does not plod in Bohème. When there's heartbreak, it comes at a gallop; when there's joy, it knocks you down with impulsive force; when romance blooms, it fills the house with fragrance. Maestro James Lowe did not gallop, he barely trotted through the score, leaving plenty of room for a quick nap. When Bohème doesn't catch fire, there's nothing to do except wait for Mimi's inevitable end and hope it will come sooner rather than later. We waited a long time.
Performances continue through November 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday. Alternate casts from HGO Studio artists and graduates perform 2 p.m. November 6, 8, and 11 at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. Sung in Italian with English projections. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $20-$245.