By Alisha Hagey
Utah Opera’s production of La Bohème at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake brings a beautiful piece of art to our humble corner of the world. Before the opera began there were fun facts and bits of historical information surrounding La Bohème that were projected up on the supertitle board. One such message shared the philosophy behind Bohemia, “Art Before Life.” This production truly embodies this very ideal. As the lights dimmed an announcement came from Christopher McBeth, the artistic director for the Utah Opera. He shared with the audience that the baritone singing the role of Marcello (Michael Adams) had recently been diagnosed with bronchitis. There was an audible gasp from the audience. Even still, Adams decided he was going to attempt to sing the role and push through. Moments later the curtain rose (on a truly spectacular set) and Adams led us into the world of La Bohème. It was quickly apparent that this was an insurmountable task for someone fighting with the health of their voice. Even still, at this moment, the artist truly put art before life. He became a living representation of Bohemia. What followed was nothing short of a love letter; a love letter to the audience, to their fellow performers, and to the text itself. This love letter was transcendent, even larger than the beautiful score and engaging text. It envelops the audience with passion and compassion throughout all four acts.
Around 1830, in Paris, France, there are four Bohemians: the poet Rodolfo (Scott Quinn), the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard (Samuel Schultz), and the philosopher Colline (Ao Li), who all live in an old garrett. They are poor, but happy. On the night of Christmas Eve, a neighbor, Mimi (Jennifer Black), knocks on Rodolfo’s door. They fall in love. What ensues are three more acts that follow the falling in and out of love between Mimi and Rodolfo. Hanging over the heads of the lovers is the fact that Mimi is sick. Ultimately this sickness leads them to decide to be friends, but to live apart. In the last act, Mimi is brought back to Rodolfo where the pair remember the time they enjoyed together, before. When their friends return, Mimi takes her last breath. Rodolfo shouts Mimi’s name, and breaks down crying.
La Bohème is a timeless and indelible story of love. It can be argued that it is one of the most popular opera’s of all time. For centuries, operas were dominated by larger than life characters. Over time, and as opera became a popular form of entertainment for the masses, composers sensed a need to change. They began creating stories that surrounded ordinary people rather than the fantastical and larger than life, or the rulers over them. This new style of opera was called “verisimo” or “realism” in Italian. Puccini was one of the greatest of its practitioners. His operas thrive on the reality that at some point in all our lives, people everywhere, in all walks of life, endure the same trials: love and envy, loss and heartbreak, and the joys of friendship. Giacomo Puccini once said that his success came from putting “great sorrows in little souls.” This is evident as we follow the lives of four artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
La Bohème was composed by Giacomo Puccini and the libretto was written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. The opera had its premiere in Teatro Reggio, Turin, 1896 where it was conducted by Thomas Beecham. Later, Beecham would conduct Bohème again for a Columbia Records recording made in 1936.
This current production is put on by the Utah Opera Company at the beautiful Capitol Theatre venue. Utah Opera has performed Bohème on six previous occasions. In fact, it was their first production in 1978. This made it fitting as the opera company is celebrating its 40th anniversary, to return again to Bohème.
Since 1913, the Capitol Theatre has been a landmark in downtown Salt Lake City. Today, it is the home of Ballet West and the Utah Opera but the Capitol has been used for a vast array of performances; everything from vaudevillians and silent movies to pop singers, comedians, and Broadway shows. Being a treasured landmark, the theatre has elegant architecture hearkening back to its turn-of-the-century beginnings with detailed mouldings and gold leafing. The plush red velvet seats and rich decor make it truly an event just to visit the theatre itself, taking the audience back to a time of when theaters sought to have grandeur as big as their productions.
As you enter the theater lobby, you will be greeted by several members of the staff. My husband and I were met by a gentleman in a kilt, something that gave the venue its own novelty. If you show up an hour early, you may be ushered to the pre-show lecture in the Capitol room, given by the company’s principal coach, Carol Anderson, called “Prelude Lectures.” We came early to get our will-call tickets and almost stumbled into the lecture, not knowing that it existed before we showed up. We are glad we did. Carol is delightful, her insights into the production give historical context, musical highlights, and some behind-the-scenes perspective that enriched our experience of the production as a whole. The lecture is complimentary with your ticket and we highly recommend you attend it.
Following the show, if you feel inclined, you can be treated to a post-show Q&A. This is always lead by McBeth. Joining him could be any number of cast and crew members. This happens each evening and each night they rotate who joins the discussion. On opening night we were joined by the director, Kathleen Clawson, and the last minute voice double for Marcello, (John Allen Nelson). My husband and I went to both the pre-show lecture and the post-show Q&A and have decided that this is a must-attend for all future visits with the Utah Opera.
Clawson, in answering a question in the Q&A, talked about her approach to Bohème being simply to “serve the music.” In four days, she staged the show, and rehearsed for a total of 20 days to create a vibrant performance that showed her love for the opera. In fact, every actor portrayed this same love in every note, nuance, and physical expression. The ultimate result is a production that not only serves the music, but is a love story all its own: a love story with Puccini and his cast of characters and the music they use to express each and every emotion.
Adams, after performing the whole first act, decided (wisely) to preserve the instrument of his voice and the incomparable baritone, Nelson, was brought out to the edge of the stage to sing while Adams performed the character. The effect was something magical (and for anybody who sees the performance after Monday night, you will likely miss this treasured experience). The two were as one: the body and voice separated by nothing but their physical presence. It was enchanting to watch and listen.
Quinnhas an impressive, robust voice that echoes throughout the hall. As with Adams, Quinn embodies the character and expresses as much with his physicality as he does with his voice. He is as accomplished in his acting as he is in his singing. The reverberation of his high notes were accompanied by a full and rounded character interpretation that made him real. His relationship with Marcello feels deep, and this depth is necessary throughout the whole of the opera – their friendship being key to connecting with the other characters.
Quinn and Adams are balanced by the steady performances of Schultz and Li. Though a supporting cast, the two actors are far more than a support. At once, Schaunard – though not upstaging his fellow actors – is a distinct person. He has vibrance, flow, and a masterful way around the stage that mirrors his being the musician of the group. Being tall, Schultz could have come across lanky, but he’s lithe and striking as Schaunard. Then, when Colline sings about his coat, near the end of the play (a coat that he has pawned and purchased so many times because of his adoration for it), one can only be taken in by his deep, personal connection with this coveted item. I felt connected to this tattered coat through Li’s portrayal of a philosopher giving up the one physical thing he treasures most with the desire to help save Mimi’s life. The magnificent performances of Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline make the whole show worthwhile, their realism, their pathos, and their commitment to an ensemble (there were no divas in the group) made the men an absolute pleasure and we found ourselves invested in their lives.
But then the women arrive. Black has a bright, voluptuous soprano voice that somehow captures a sense of innocence mixed with sophistication. She has complete control of a dynamic range, both in vocals and in emotion. Rodolpho is smitten from the moment she appears onstage, and from the moment Black opens her mouth, we were smitten too. She is a character that is pure. Black captures this purity, her willingness to give of herself, and her simple pleasures while simultaneously showing us her range of emotion, layers of love, and the sheer power of her performance. She is a wonderful balance to Rodolpho, the two having great chemistry.
Celena Shafer is well-known for her portrayal of Musetta, and for good reason. She’s a local favorite. Fans have been asking what she was going to do for Utah Opera next, she being so desired. She’s a soprano skilled in coloratura, and the brightness of every note shines with her dazzling, charming performance. This character could have been over-the-top and excessive, but Shafer takes Musetta to the level of a realistic woman with true charisma rather than a caricature. Her straight-man and wealthy benefactor, Alcindoro (Christopher Clayton) is a wonderful accompaniment to her wild charm, bringing out just the right level of cluelessness and naivete that makes her shine.
Operas have been notorious for strutting prima donnas with soaring and flawless notes. This production has all of the soar without any of the selfishness. The cast gives of themselves to each other and puts the story and music first and foremost. As an audience, we have the feeling that it isn’t about them as performers, but their lives as characters. This shared experience is only heightened by the incredible design team.
Peter Dean Beck’s set has an interesting history. It was created by the Utah Opera, then loaned to Arizona Opera for its debut, and now brought back to the Utah Opera for its first time on the Utah Opera stage. When the curtain went up, the set was the first thing that took our breath away. The understated impressiveness of the set made us both say, “Wow, that’s awesome.” Not only does it look amazing, it is versatile. It doubles as the inside of their home and both the internal and external spaces around a tavern, where much of the action takes place. With a few changes it can become any space and was an excellent place to stage the whole show.
Susan Memmott Allred’s costuming was colorful, but intentionally dulled to give both a sense of the operatic grandness while keeping true to the poor lifestyle of those who wore the costumes. Much of character relationships are instantly captured in the costuming, with color-palettes connecting characters. Of particular note was the subtle connection between mother and child during one of the scenes where children are wanting toys from Parpignol (Christopher Oglesby) and their mothers come out to scold them. The mother/child connection of color and pattern is not overt, but it is unmistakable whom belonged to whom. This shows a special deftness of a true costuming craftsman and artist.
Robert Tweten conducted. He does this with precision and incredible pacing. Tweten has enjoyed a long collaboration with the Utah Opera and Symphony. This will be his eleventh experience conducting the Opera/Symphony since 2005. The orchestra swells and persuades the audience, just as much as the actors on the stage. We feel a shared connection with the orchestra and the notes they play. With a sixty piece orchestra, the pit was full. The sound falls upon the audience with what feels like perfection.
The direction by Clawson was just what it needed to be; carefully choreographed pictures to help tell the story clearly from any seat in the house. Clawson herself has a long history with Bohème. In an interview, she delightfully told the interviewer that she might not know where the keys to her car were but she knew every word to Bohème. Her love and deep understanding was evident from every tableau and the beautiful staging. In fact, she herself did the translation of the supertitles. She has worked for the Santa Fe Opera for over fifteen seasons and is the Assistant Director of their Apprentice Singer Program and Director of the Young Voices of the Santa Fe Opera.
At first glance, Bohème is a depiction of the joys and sorrows of life and love and its loss. When you look deeper, it reveals something more; the significance of small things, of trivial things – a bonnet, an old overcoat, a chance meeting on Christmas Eve. It shares with us that these items and these meetings are what bring us greater significance and relevance to our lives. In this instance those small things become great. I was reminded of what may be small to others but are great to me; a stuffed animal bunny now faded and grey with age but given to me with the greatest love from my now deceased mother, a photograph, love letters from my husband carefully handwritten (because he knows I prefer it that way), and creations by my children. These simple parts of life give us the greatest joy and the greatest sorrows. It is with this lens that I choose to surrender to the swells of Puccini with those four starving artists in Paris, choose to view Bohemia, choose to hold my own version of a lovers bonnet close to my chest in a loving embrace.
La Bohème is performed in Italian with English supertitles. The run time is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission. This show is appropriate for all ages but recommended for those 8 and older. When you come to the theatre, there is public parking directly across the street, down a ramp into a parking garage. Just look for the signs that take you to the elevator for the Capitol Theatre. You will initially come out at the entrance of The Olive Garden. Go outside and you will see the front of the Capitol just across the street. The price for parking is $7, but it covers you for the entirety of the evening and access to and from the garage is simple – well worth the effort.
Utah Opera presents La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Giacosa, and Luigi Illica
Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
Oct. 7- 13 7:30 PM., Oct. 15 2:00 PM
Utah Opera Facebook Page
La Boheme’s Facebook Event