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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Soft Be Her Tears

EVERYTHING THAT MAKES Puccini’s 1896 La bohème one of the opera-loving world’s all-time favorites is on display in the current Glimmerglass Festival production. Killer arias sung by incredibly skilled artists; ensemble pieces so stirring that your body will spontaneously increase its white-blood-cell count; stage movement and choreography that spurs the pacing when needed and enhances the poignancy when that’s needed, too. 

Joshua Blue and Teresa Perrotta
Photo courtesy The Glimmerglass Festival
It goes without saying that the music has its most fervent champion in the Glimmerglass orchestra, but I’m saying it anyway because it bears repeating for the sheer fun of repeating it. Puccini’s score sweeps with romantic gestures galore, of course, but there’s also much within it that begs for nuance and shading, and conductor Nader Abbassi not only showed a thorough understanding of the score’s demands but also the deft ability to support both the singer and the song.

But what’s happening, as you sit in the darkened theater and let the experience draw you in, is a confluence of these elements that uses your eyes and ears as entryways to your tear ducts. Or, to put it less cutely, as a direct avenue to your emotions. Puccini masterfully wields the tools that result in expert manipulation. Prepare to be manipulated.

At the top of Act One we see a quartet of dirt-poor loft-dwellers. They’re denizens of the starving-artists class of 1830s Paris, each pursuing a different art. Rodolfo is a poet. As sung by tenor Joshua Blue, he is affable but little overshadowed by painter Marcello (baritone Darren Drone), whose big voice underscores Marcello’s habit of doing things in a big way. The self-effacing Rodolfo offers the pages of his new play to the fire to create some warmth. Although Colline, a philosopher (baritone Nan Wang, one of this year’s Young Artist performers) failed to pawn his books, the musician of the group, Schaunard (baritone Justin Burgess, another Young Artist), brings firewood and food and extra cash thanks to an absurd job he just finished.

Photo courtesy The Glimmerglass Festival
All of which is to note that this act swirls in an engaging series of incidents that reveal four memorable characters, particularly when they work together to rid themselves of a pesky landlord (bass-baritone Stefano de Peppo, who is delightful). And then, as we’re savoring all this, the real magic begins. Rodolfo is left alone. His neighbor Mimi appears. He sings “Che gelida manina,” commenting on her cold hands while telling her his story. It’s a big piece, and Blue sang it with marvelous insight and skill. Yet his aria gets topped when she sings “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì,” the emotional heart of this act. Soprano Teresa Perrotta made it seem effortless at first, but the aria builds and wherever the music went, her voice went, too. This is Puccini’s genius, surprising us with such beautifully written, musically intricate numbers – and immediately following them with another show piece, the duet “O soave fanciulla.” Were I drawn into a passionate duet like that a mere few minutes after meeting someone, you can bet I’d be in love. It’s opera land, and we buy it.

Director Loren Meeker’s staging in the busy first part of the act is effective to the point of transparency, which is to say that it doesn’t feel directed. And that’s a good thing. Likewise, the solos and duet are almost left to themselves, also good. That’s where it becomes all about the voices, and these are voices worth that level of attention.

Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel also deserves praise, especially for his work during the second act, when the stage crowds with street vendors, children, and slumming Parisians. When the charismatic toy-seller Parpignol appears (engagingly sung by Zachary Riox), dance becomes a carnival of effective movement.

We’re in the Latin Quarter, and this is when we meet the comely Musetta (soprano Emilie Kealani, another Young Artist, not that you can easily tell her apart from the headliners). She was Marcello’s squeeze, but now she’s on the arm of the elderly Alcindoro (de Peppo again, all indignation and bluster). Her famous waltz, Quando me'n vo', is excellently sung and staged.

Joshua Blue, Darren Drone,
Justin Burgess, and Nan Wang
Photo courtesy The Glimmerglass Festival
This large cast of bystanders took their bow at the end of the act – the only time in which they appear – sending us into the intermission break with a dreadful sense of foreboding. We would see them no more. The stubborn cough from which Mimi suffered ... well, the opera premiered in 1896, a time when popular song and literature demanded that someone beloved had to die

The two couples dominate Act Three as Mimi and Rodolfo try to figure out whether to remain together or split, even as Marcello and Musetta pursue a quarrel of their own. Of course Puccini makes a quartet out of it: “Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina!,” setting the stage for Act Four, which is a kind of mirror of the first act. The four artists are together again; the two girlfriends have found wealthy patrons. And then it all unravels. Mimi arrives, escorted by Musetta – but Mimi is at the end of her life.

Kevin Depinet’s sets underscore the journey, opening from garret to street and back to garret again as the arc of the story tightens the grip of fate. Where before there were efforts to sell or pawn their goods to get food and fuel, now they’re doing the same to get medicine – giving baritone Wang a showpiece in “Vecchia zimarra,” which he sings to the overcoat he’s about to hock.

You knew going into this that is would be an unhappy finish, but there’s a special level of enjoyment we’ve learned from works like this. La bohème is a story of poverty and suffering, but the music and theatricality whisks us far away from any pursuit of social change. The Glimmerglass Festival – reviving and improving on a production last presented seven summers ago – is giving us an unabashedly glorious night (or day) at the opera, one that will set your standard of expectation for Puccini’s masterpiece for all time to come. This production runs through August 19; more info is at

La bohème
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Conducted by Nader Abbassi
Directed by E. Loren Meeker
Glimmerglass Festival, 9 July 2023

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