The words “La Boheme” are box office gold for virtually every opera company; all you have to do is announce the title and the people will come. It’s thus very tempting for a company to leave the piece to a workaday ensemble cast — or, if the budget permits, import a few big names to do their star turns during the hit arias. During its monthlong holiday-season run of “Boheme,” Los Angeles Opera is having it both ways, but in reverse of the usual order — going with the ensemble cast first and having the stars drop in toward the end of the run. So what we got on opening night Saturday was routine — enlightened, stylistically faithful routine, yes, but routine nevertheless.
There is something to be said for having a youngish cast of near-equals portraying the starving young artistes and bohemians. Indeed, this cast projected an appealing camaraderie, reinforced by Gerard Howland’s touchingly realistic sets with the circa 1890s Paris cityscape as a backdrop.
But the singing was, for the most part, ordinary, easily overwhelmed by the orchestra whenever Puccini’s more sentimental manipulations gushed forth. Conductor Lawrence Foster set comfortable, middle-of-the-road tempos; the orchestra played well, if without the extra edge it has brandished in previous productions this season. The street life in act two looked lively enough, but the choruses audibly lacked sparkle and snap.
Rodolfo was in the hands of Marco Berti’s serviceable tenor; he sported good diction, not much luster or sustaining power and a grainy texture when pushed to full volume. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez returned as Mimi, singing “Mi chiamano Mimi” with a moderate flutter and a matter-of-fact delivery, affecting a slightly fragile tone that would seem right for the tubercular character.
Though their act three duet was rather pallid, Berti and Martinez created some nicely intimate moments in act four. Yet one misses the blossoming effect that big, opulent, highly colored voices can have in these arias and duets. (Presumably this will change somewhat when glamour couple Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna take over the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo Dec. 10, 14 and 17.)
Overcoming a shaky start, Alfredo Gaza’s Marcello developed some temperament and warmth later on, while Shelley Jamison adequately conveyed the tempestuous and flighty aspects of Musetta, acting out the seductive “Musetta’s Waltz” in a cabaret-like style. Stephen Morscheck’s Colline bid farewell to his coat in act four with dignity and pathos, nicely undercut by Foster’s gently mocking accompaniment. Gregorio Gonzalez was a decent Schaunard, and Jamie Offenbach performed dual service as a comic Benoit and a unusually debonair, elegant Alcindoro (no elderly fool he).
This was the fourth time around for the late film director Herbert Ross’ depiction of Paris in Puccini’s time (first seen here in 1993) — and even though he is sadly no longer around to supervise, Ross’ production remains the brightest star of the show. Anyone who has been to the Latin Quarter will experience a nostalgic shock of recognition from the Cafe Momus sidewalk cafe in act two — and it’s still fun to notice incidental details like the Eiffel Tower gradually taking shape as time passes from act one to act four.