Pacific Opera Project’s La Bohème, a.k.a. The Hipsters

There are many reasons why Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème is among the most popular works in the operatic repertoire. Its beautiful, romantic score, full of soaring melodies, boasts of several hit tunes, like “Che gelida manina”, “Quando men vo’”, and what fellow singers affectionately refer to as “The Bass National Anthem” – “Vecchia zimarra”. Based on the novel by Henri Murger, it is a fun, sometimes silly, but ultimately poignant and heartbreaking story about the joys, struggles, and loves of a circle of friends – a group of poor young people living in Paris in 1830. One of the first verismo (realism) operas, it is a work that lends itself well to updating to the present day.

Pacific Opera Project’s production of La Bohème a.k.a. The Hipsters transports the action from 1830 Paris to present-day Los Angeles/Lake Tahoe. Upon entering the venue, the audience was treated to falling “snow” – the first of many witty, charming touches of the production – anticipating Rodolfo’s (or rather, Rudy’s) act-one line about the surprising snowfall in Los Angeles. POP’s Executive and Artistic Director Josh Shaw is an immensely talented, intelligent, and creative artist, whose work – both as a performer and as director – I have admired for years. Under his direction, La bohème becomes more literally a verismo piece of theatre – a kind of cross between a sitcom and reality television. The situations and the characters become instantly relatable; we know these places, we know these people – and more to the point, we are these people. Rodolfo and Marcello share a dirty, messy, tastelessly decorated bachelor pad – which gets only messier with the arrival of Colline and Schaunard. Cleverly, one of the posters on their living-room wall is that of POP’s upcoming production of The Magic Flute. Cute. However, one can detect several other, subtler touches, foreshadowing what’s to come. Atop the bookcase there is a picture of a dog. In Act II, Musetta makes her grand entrance holding a chihuahua – could it be that Marcello painted this dog for her, as he could not afford to buy her one? Could it be that the painting is his way of keeping a piece of Musetta with him, now that she has left him for the wealthy Alcindoro? More chillingly, there is a human skull two shelves lower, in the geometric center of the audience’s field of vision. Thus, when in Act IV we realize that Mimi is dying, there is the skull – a symbol of death itself – peering at her from behind the sofa with a seemingly sinister smile. Brilliant.

There are numerous charming 21st-century touches as well. In Act I, as soon as Mimi begins her aria with “They call me ‘Mimi’, but my name is Lucy”, Rudy looks her up on Facebook on his mobile phone and friends her in a matter of seconds! Marcello does not paint on canvas – rather, he does so digitally, on his endlessly frustrating laptop. In Acts I and IV Schaunard brings fast food and soda!

In Act II, we find ourselves at “Cafe Momus”, a hipster hang-out that offers vegan (thank you!) and gluten-free items, offering the most quintessentially hipster menu items, with ingredients like “artisanal cauliflower flatbread”, “cashew nut butter (locally foraged nuts)”, and “imported North-Korean kimchi”! The irony is delicious. This is so us, isn’t it, co-hipsters? Musetta, wearing a sexy, form-fitting, glistening gold dress, and jungle-red high-heeled shoes, sings the famous “Quando men vo’” from atop the piano, darting glances at Marcello, who is desperately trying not to look at her. The climactic moment of the act comes when Marcello, no longer able to restrain his passion for Musetta, jumps up, stands directly behind her in a position more-than-a-little suggestive of copulation, and lets his virile baritone explode with “Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta” (“My youth, you are not dead!”), while Musetta’s high-pitched shrieks about the tightness of her (m-hm) shoe were reminiscent of… well, you get the idea.

In Act III, the action moves to Lake Tahoe – where snowfall is much more likely than in Los Angeles. Before the music begins, we are treated to Schaunard and Colline’s horsing around in utter inebriation – a nice touch, as these two characters are conspicuously absent from this act in Puccini’s opera. Schaunard vomits and passes out on the side of the stage, and remains there for the duration of the act, only to awaken with the last two forte chords at the end. Clever.

Kudos to POP for assembling an excellent cast of great singing actors! J. J. Lopez is a charming, handsome Rodolfo, with a ringing, brilliant tenor voice. In recent years his tone has begun to acquire greater warmth and richness. His delivery was passionate and exciting, and the special Italianate “cry” in his voice added a special dimension of sincerity to his portrayal.

Ben Lowe was outstanding as Marcello. His rich, full, resonant, sonorous baritone, with a smooth and easy vocal emission from top to bottom and enviable breath control was a pleasure to hear! With a baritone like this, how I wish Puccini had written an aria for Marcello as well! Lowe’s portrayal was perfectly natural and unforced, uninhibited, funny, rambunctious, and, at the end of the opera, compassionate and touching.

E. Scott Levin as Schaunard was delightful! His opening scene, where he recounts the story of the unfortunate parrot, was full of cute comic touches. His drunken scene at the top of Act III elicited peals of laughter from a (somewhat inebriated) audience. His baritone was full-bodied and rich, though occasionally slightly uncomfortable with the role’s excursions into the upper register.

The role of the philosopher Colline was portrayed by sonorous bass Vincent Grana. Hardly a deep thinker in acts I, II and III, this philosopher romped around as much as the other bohemians – a worthy addition to the quartet of young hipsters. In Act IV, his “Vecchia zimarra” was sung with a beautifully focused, warm tone (not an easy feat, after the wild fight scene that precedes it!) and was appropriately touching and heartfelt – this was truly Colline the philosopher. His farewell to his coat was the perfect foreshadowing to our eventual farewell to Mimi.

Maya Rothfuss was a lovely, silver-toned Mimì. Appropriately fragile and delicate in her portrayal, attractive and sweet, it was easy to see how Rudy would instantly fall in love with her. Though occasionally flat in the middle register, her top notes always soared gorgeously, including a ravishing high C at the conclusion of Act I. What a wonderful way to spend her birthday – singing opera for an appreciative audience!

The role of Musetta was portrayed by Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr, who has already sung in several of POP’s productions. “Quando men vo’” was teasingly sensuous, sung with secure vocal technique. The moment she and Marcello made up (after that almost literally orgasmic ensemble), she and Mimi became instant friends and took selfies together! It bears saying that it takes an artist of some magnetism not to be upstaged by the adorable chihuahua with whom they make their initial entrance. In Act IV, after the high-voltage singing of the previous two acts, it was lovely to hear how this artist’ tone acquired a deeper, warmer, richer quality, as she offered a fervent prayer for Mimì’s healing. Beautifully done.

The minor roles of Benoit, Alcindoro and Parpignol were portrayed by the versatile tenor, composer, and conductor William Grundler. His Benoit was a sleazy narcissist, with a thick Russian accent, obsessed with taking selfies. His characterization was charming and repulsive at the same time! He portrayed Alcindoro as weak and utterly mortified by Musetta’s unrestrained, outrageous behavior. Reduced to the status of a prop, he left with the stage with the chihuahua, only to return to the enormous restaurant bill bequeathed to him by the six hipsters!

This production omitted the chorus, which necessitated a few judicious cuts, but the team was nevertheless successful in maintaining the musical cohesion of the opera. Music director Parisa Zaeri was the excellent pianist for this performance. Without a conductor and without being able to see each other, the singers and the pianist were somehow able to stay together remarkably well! The piano sounded remote and muffled much of the time, especially considering the excellent projection of the talented singers. I would suggest that the company consider amplifying the piano in future productions.

The production was cleverly costumed by Maggie Green and Vanessa Stewart. From the hideous Christmas sweaters, Colline’s faux-leather coat, Rudy’s think blue hipster glass frames, Colline’s hat that got a little too excited when Musetta passed by him, even the chihuahua’s adorable little sweater – every little touch teasingly held the mirror up to this LA audience. And we loved it!

The supertitles, written by Josh Shaw, were not mere English translations of the original Italian libretto, but more a matter of “if these characters really lived in 2018 in Los Angeles, how would they say this”? Thus “Vezzosa damigella” (“Delightful young lady”) became “”Hey, babydoll”, and “Vi saluto” (“Salutations!”) became “Good fucking bye!!!!”. True to the down-to-earth realism of this production, the supertitles were often vulgar, used slang and low-brow language. From the very top of the show they helped create the atmosphere of a sitcom, where the audience came to expect every line to be hysterically funny – whether or not it was meant to be, whether or not the situation on stage, or the music itself called for uproarious laughter. In Act III, when things start to get really serious, when Mimi discovers that she is in fact dying, the audience’s reaction to the supertitles began to grow really tiresome. It wasn’t until the end of Act IV that things calmed down, as everyone seemed to finally understand that “la commedia è finita”.

There remain three more performances: on December 20, 21, and 22 at 8 PM. The cast on December 21 features Duane Suarez, Kerriann Otano, Joel Balzun, and Elle Valera in the roles of Rodolfo, Mimi, Marcello, and Musetta, respectively. Please be advised, parking at the Highland Park Ebell Club can be treacherous; allow extra time.

Congratulations to POP and the excellent cast and production team of La bohème for another great, fun, imaginative, creative production!

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