Marquita Richardson in Photo: Philip Groshong.

La Bohéme

Composed by Giacomo Puccini
Librettists Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa
Conducted by Joseph Mechavich
Directed by Kelly Kitchens

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

We know that the past couple of years have forced our collective arts scene to pivot and make sacrifices and the Kentucky Opera was not immune to this. But, pivot they did and I know that we will all be the better for it. While the company was able to deliver some lovely performances in the past couple of seasons, the last that we had seen a “grand opera” was Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, in February 2020. But, hooray, the drought is over and the wait gave way to a satisfying and cleansing performance of La Bohéme.

Executive Director Barbara Lynne Jamison, dressed in a smart rose-patterned jumpsuit, took the stage to welcome the audience to the beginning of Kentucky Opera’s (KYO) 70th season. To have reached such an anniversary takes commitment and dedication and I am happy to see that Ms. Jamison has that want and drive to push the KYO towards its first 100 years. As is common in stage addresses, it is asked who is attending their first opera and I was happy to see a few hands rise. That is a great sign.

Whether you have seen La Bohéme multiple times or this is your introduction, it is difficult to walk out of the theater and not feel moved.

Based on short stories and real people of Paris in the early 1800s, La Bohéme explores the lives, loves, hopes, dreams, sorrows, and losses of poet Rodolfo (Chaz’Men Williams-Ali), painter Marcello (Leroy Davis), philosopher Colline (Jason Zacher), musician Schaunard (Kyle White (a grisette named Musetta (Marquita Richardson) and the embroiderer Mimi (Shannon Jennings).

While sharing a flat in Paris, the four male Bohemians, with limited means, scrape their way through each day. The quartet is forced to use the paper from Rodolfo’s papers to throw into the fire to stay warm. As the temperatures continue to drop, Schaunard bounces in with a monetary windfall, and they decide to live a little and celebrate at Café Momus. As they leave, Rodolfo stays behind to finish up a writing project only to be disrupted by a knock on the door by their neighbor Mimi, weak and coughing, who shares that her candle has gone out and hopes that it can be re-lit by Rodolfo. Darkness falls fast on the two, as does love as the couple joins the rest at the Café.

As the revelry continues at the Café, Marcello sees his former lover Musetta in the company of a rich nobleman, Alcindoro (Peter Strummer), and seethes with jealousy. Seeing Marcello, Musetta devises a way to dupe her admirer and return to Marcello. 

As winter continues, Mimi runs to Marcello to seek advice about Rodolfo, who is under sits of jealousy and accusing her of being unfaithful, which is far from the truth. Marcello asks Rodolfo what is going on and Rodolfo confides that he still loves Mimi but knows that her illness will grow far worse because of their poverty and that she would be better off without him. Overhearing the conversation, Mimi confronts Rodolfo and the two agree to stay together through the winter.

Spring comes and the four Bohemians are once again in their Paris flat, trying to scrape by. Musetta bursts through the door asking for help sharing that she found Mimi in the streets, barely alive. The friends get Mimi into the flat and lay her down and do their best to keep her warm. Seeing that she needs medical help, the group does what they can to attain a doctor and get medicine for the dying seamstress. Rodolfo and Mimi share their eternal love for one another as Musetta comes back with a muzzle to keep Mimi’s hands warm. Mimi, comfortable in warmth and surrounded by love, quietly passes, leading Rodolfo to grieve inconsolably.

A beautiful happenstance with this story is that we can see those we know, if not ourselves, in these timeless characters. Who among us has not struggled some in our lives whether it was career, money, friendships, or love? 

And as strong as the story is, when you set it to the stunning and brilliant composition of Puccini, the story takes on a whole new level of appreciation. So much so, this work has become a part of pop culture. I’d guess that many of you could pick up Musetta’s or Mimi’s theme in any number of places, of course famously in Jonathan Larson’s Rent.

The roles of Schaunard and Colline don’t get near enough time for singing, but Kyle White’s interpretation of Schaunard’s sudden wealth was fun and exciting while Jason Zacher’s solo “Vecchia zimarra” had me so beguiled that I wanted to throw money on to the stage so that he wouldn’t have to do what he’s singing about (don’t want to divulge too much).

Speaking of beguiled, Peter Strummer, who has graced our stage before, was knee-slappingly funny as both Alcindoro and Benoit. Benoit was unapologetically a dirty old man and the audience was eating it up, from his bawdiness down to his dressing gown that looked like something straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, which, for that character, worked.

New to the Kentucky Opera, Leroy Davis was delightful as Marcello. Aside from his vocal styling, he was a fun actor to watch. Whether he was analyzing his latest painting or furious and love-sick over Musetta, Davis was always in the moment. 

Musetta, Musetta, Musetta!! What a perfect name for her character and Marquita Richardson was living that fantasy every moment she was on stage. Intriguing and diva-esque, Richardson hit every nuance and note that I’ve grown to know Musetta to be. And that dress she wore at Café Momus, wow, great job costumer Glenn Breed and associates. Stunning.

Chemistry can play an important part in roles such as Rodolfo and Mimi. Fortunately, Williams-Ali and Jennings had a good amount of that. Their duet “O soave fanciulla” in the first act, declaring the characters’ love for one another, helps to solidify the dynamic between the two. Both vocally and in presentation, it sounded and looked lovely, both were strong and easily heard. However, for both, there were times that it was hard to hear them over the orchestra, especially if they were poised further upstage. I could not hear Williams at all towards the end of the quartet “Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina!”. Despite those nuisances, I feel that both were genuine and entertaining as the fated lovers.

My appreciation to director Kelly Kitchens for adding some humor to the heart-heavy opera. Watching the friends pretending to fence with each other for a piece of fish was fun, as was the playfulness in Act 1 as each makes playful jabs at each other’s chosen careers while they burn what little they have to stay warm.

Act 2 has been a thorn in my side. As far as staging and singing, every time I see La Bohéme I hope to see a crowded Parisian street and café look busy without making it look messy or posed. I’d like to say that a solution was found in this production, but the scene, while entertaining and containing great moments, was fraught with musical rushing and needed to be tighter. Parpignol’s (Mark Eldred) leading of the children’s chorus like a pied [piper almost felt like an afterthought. 

Peter Dean Beck’s set designs and Jesse Alford’s light designs certainly lent themselves to struggling in Paris in the dead of winter.

As I listened to and watched this performance, I found myself looking for frsh nuance about the opera that I had not experienced before and discovered how Ms. Kitchens approached the story, how the singers performed from the principles to the choruses, and to the talents of the production team is what is new to me and it is within their generosity of talent and time that I found that new discoveries to embrace and learn from.

Bravi Tutti!!

La Bohéme

September 24-26, 2022Kentucky Opera
The Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.