Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Opera Review: The poor people of Paris

Although copies of Henri Murger's 1851 short story collection Scenes de la vie bohème are no longer the common sight on bookshelves that they once were, the principal characters have never fallen out of favor. The stories (originally published in a Paris literary magazine) inspired, among other things, an 1849 play, two operas, and the wildly successful rock musical Rent.

Jesse Donner and Lulia Lysenko
Photo by Dan Donovan
It's Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème, however, that should probably get most of the credit for embedding the image of the starving artist in a Paris atelier into Western consciousness. A staple of companies around the world, it finally came to the Union Avenue Opera stage in an admirable production that concluded last Saturday (August 3, 2019).

For those of you who have somehow missed being exposed to this tale of starving artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris, here's a quick summary. On Christmas Eve, the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the philosopher Colline, and the musician Schaunard are young, creative, broke, and preparing to burn some of their work to heat their squalid Parisian apartment when the equally poverty-stricken seamstress Mimi comes knocking. Before the first act is over, she and Rodolfo are smitten. The opera chronicles the highs and tragic lows of both their relationship and that of Marcello and the singer Musetta. Mimì dies, Musetta doesn't, and nobody lives happily ever after.

Back row: Nicholas Ward, Andrew Wannigman
Front row: Isaiah Musik-Ayla, E. SCott Levin,
Jesse Donner
Photo by Dan Donovan
So, yeah, it's a tragedy, but it's a tragedy with more than its fair share of comedy. Until Mimi's entrance near the end of the first act, for example, La Bohème is largely about the good natured clowning of the four friends as they enjoy a bit of short-lived prosperity and prevent their bumbling landlord from collecting the rent. Musetta's famous Act II aria, "Quando m'en vo'," also generates plenty of laughs as she taunts the jealous Marcello.

Under the direction of Mark Freiman (a fine singer in his own right) Union Avenue delivered a La Bohème that honored the comedy in the opera while still delivering all the romance and tragedy that you could ask for. I thought Mr. Freiman did a particularly good job of managing the potential traffic jam Puccini and his librettists created in the Café Momus scene, which fills the stage with café staff, customers, assorted Parisians, a toy vendor, and a group of rambunctious children.

Union Avenue's cast was a splendid one, with impressive singing and acting from all concerned. Jesse Donner's Rodolfo and Yulia Lysenko's Mimì tugged at the heartstrings in their famous Act I duet, "O soave fanciulla." Cree Carrico's Musetta was a fiery comic masterpiece in her early scenes and credibly moving in the final act. Andrew Wannigman's Marcello was an ideal mix of conflict and compassion.

Cree Carrico and the company
Photo by Dan Donovan
There were outstanding performance as well by Isaiah Musik-Ayla as the philosopher Colline, Nicholas Ward as the musician Schaunard, and E. Scott Levin as the befuddled landlord Benoit and Musetta's sugar daddy Alcindoro, who gets stuck with the bill at Café Momus.

Conductor Elizabeth Hastings drew first rate performances from the chorus and orchestra, both of which had a pleasingly robust and full sound. Patrick Huber's sets and Teresa Doggett's costumes were spot on as usual.

Union Avenue's 25th anniversary season concludes with the local premiere of Tom Cipullo's 2007 tragedy Glory Denied August 16th through 24th. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church at Union and Enright in the Central West End.

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