Filmmaker Herbert Ross’ gloriously detailed new production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” provided a starry opening night for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s eighth season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
There were stars in the audience, stars in the pit and stars over Puccini’s Parisian garret. The performance proved that Ross is capable of making the leap from film directing to opera staging; that Placido Domingo is still finding his way as a conductor; and that a young cast’s best efforts can be overwhelmed by the vast interior of the Chandler Pavilion.
It’s not uncommon for opera directors and designers to claim their productions will examine a classic like “La Boheme” with fresh eyes. Ross and his technical staff, including set designer Gerard Howland and costumer Peter J. Hall, uttered those exact sentiments.
Admirably, they deliver on the promise — maintaining the work’s charm, while breathing vitality into its characters and supplying imaginative new action.
In updating the opera from its 1840s setting to the 1890s, Ross & Co. have incorporated a look that certainly does not detract from drama. It maintains all the essential character relationships while allowing the designers to reflect the art of Manet, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, while drawing detail from the photographic studies by Eugene Atget. The Cafe Momus scene becomes a panoply of street peddlers, circus performers and denizens of the demi-monde, topped off by a marching band of North African Zouaves.
If the young cast hadn’t had to reach the back of the Pavilion with their climactic high notes, this “Boheme” might succeed as well vocally as it does visually.
Craig Sirianni as Rodolfo and Kallen Esperian as Mimi both deliver performances that resound on a dramatic level. But in the clinches their singing proved problematical. Jeffrey Black and Tatiana Odinokova fared better as the contrasting emotional combatants, Marcello and Musetta.
In support, Richard Bernstein made a sincere Colline, John Atkins was a playful Schaunard and Michael Gallup brought an unusual amount of sympathy to the role of the landlord, Benoit.
Domingo remains more a singer’s conductor than a musician’s conductor; with his background it makes sense. LAMCO’s “La Boheme” which is shared with the Dallas Opera, is performed in Italian with projected titles. It is also performed with a single intermission — a change that borders on the revolutionary.
Performances continue through Sept. 26, with the final three performances conducted by Randall Behr.