Herbert Ross’ lavish production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” returns to the LA Opera, this time with Gregory A. Fortner at the helm. It remains a Hollywood Valentine, one that Walt Disney might have imagined if ever he graduated to the adult fare of two unwed couples falling in and out of love with almost alarming speed. The moon over the Paris rooftops is so big and luscious here, one almost expects Lady and the Tramp to come onstage and start howling.
What gets lost in all this golden gloss is the opera’s message, a cynical one, that love rarely lasts much longer than it takes to sing an aria or two. Marcello (the sonorous Artur Rucinski) and Musetta (Janai Brugger, sumptuous of figure and voice) bicker most of the evening. Rodolfo (Stephen Costello) and Mimi (Ailyn Perez) fall in love at first sight, then promptly break up during intermission, where, apparently, most of the drama takes place.
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Ten years ago, when Baz Luhrmann staged “La Boheme” on Broadway, auds raised on musical theater wanted to know what happened between acts two and three. Could “Doc” Neil Simon come in and write another scene? What had entertained opera lovers for over a century was found wanting at the Broadway Theater, and the show — it was also expensive and overproduced — closed after a short run.
“La Boheme” isn’t great dramaturgy, but it has great music in it, and for opera lovers its success rests with the singers. Rucinski’s Marcello and Brugger’s Musetta are ideal; the more important duo, Mimi and Rodolfo, need counseling (or is it coaching?). Costello and Perez are a real-life married couple, but onstage they are mismatched here. His light tenor is overtaxed by Puccini’s vocal demands, and phrases keep getting cut short. Costello was heard to better advantage earlier this season at the Met Opera, singing the lyric Lord Percy in the bel canto “Anna Bolena.” Perez, on the other hand, has breath to spare, hanging on to every line to imbue the music with nuance and innate fragility.
For conductor Patrick Summers, this must be a schizoid assignment, rushing Rodolfo’s music and then taking a very leisurely place with Mimi’s. Still, everything coalesces under his baton, and he brings real verve to the Cafe Momus scene, which, unfortunately, finds Fortner turning Musetta into some campy poodle. Disney, no doubt, would approve.