A match is struck to light a candle onstage and the orchestra begins, La Bohème's tale of doomed love begins and Opera Theatre of St. Louis' new season opens vividly in a cold Parisian garret warmed by Giacomo Puccini's score. OTSL maintains a worthy reputation of presenting grand opera on an intimate scale, yet director Tim Ocel and stage designer Erhard Rom find numerous ways to enlarge each romantic moment. When Rodolfo (Gerard Powers) and Mimi (Pamela Armstrong) colorfully sing their first duet, the walls of the garret open wide to reveal a gorgeous (and garish) yellow moon that rises with their voices. Is it a bit much? Of course it is, but if you can't enjoy "a bit much," what are you doing at the opera? A rousing Act 2 closes with most of Webster Groves onstage, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra percussionist John Kasica rapping a drum as he leads a marching band through the Café Momus, and the full ensemble (plus children) in full voice with Italian conductor Federico Cortese's long arms waving from the orchestra pit. Intermission. Opera Theatre knows how to open a season.
La Bohème is awfully hard to dislike, and this production doesn't provide much to grouse about. Yes, it takes the consumptive Mimi a while to die, but that time is abundantly filled with Armstrong's shapely soprano. Hers is a voice that wraps around you sensually rather than pummeling you toward cognition. There's no avoiding the saintly martyrdom of the role, but Armstrong is affecting with her dimple-cheeked sweetness and her swooning passion. Mimi's is the voice to wait for in La Bohème, and Armstrong's is worth any impatience.
La Bohème also has the four guys, the struggling artistes searching for inspiration, food, money and women in Paris while avoiding the rent. They're more annoying than charming, but in this production the players' talents override the cartoonish script. Both Marcus DeLoach and Kyle Ketelsen make ample profit of thin roles, Schaunard and Colline, respectively. Lester Lynch, as the painter Marcello, is one of the standouts of the production. His broad baritone supplies counterweight to the foolery of the opera and deepens its tragedy. Lynch plays tormented lover opposite Yali-Marie Williams as the tempestuous Musetta in an inspired casting move. Williams plays Musetta to the hilt, making each sharply pointed high-note ring with both cruelty and seduction. She and Lynch are the perfectly impossible marriage -- hellish to be in but fun to watch.
The poet Rodolfo is the fourth musketeer freezing in Paris, the romantic hero who woos Mimi, finds her to be his true love and then must watch her die. Powers sings with a fresh, clear tone, and his duets with Armstrong were sumptuous, light and moving. There were times, however, when Powers lacked power, his tenor lost in the background. He's a handsome leading man, but his Paul McCartney (circa Wings) haircut was peculiar to see on an 1890s bohemian. With so many choices made to render the Parisians of La Bohème so richly authentic on the Loretto-Hilton stage, this small detail grew into a nettlesome flaw by the final act.
But if an opera review turns to a criticism of hairstyles, it means that there is much to enjoy in this La Bohème. Conductor Cortese, in his OTSL debut, has the orchestra in divine form. Again, this is a production that reaches for the grand gestures, the high drama, and musically Cortese aligns with this conception.
For all the tragedy of the last two acts, the most memorable scenes were comedic. The futile attempt of landlord Benoit (Terry Hodges) to collect the rent from the bohemian rascals is delightfully, and ribaldly, played. He returns as Musetta's flustered suitor, the one with the deep pockets to pay her bills but not the passion to win her heart. Hodges is an enjoyable clown in both roles.
But that is the marvelously consistent paradox of Opera Theatre's methodology: to pluck the comedy from the tragedy, to turn the intimate grand, to light the stage with subtle candlelight and brash fireworks.