A quartet of artists eke out a living in mid-1800s Paris: Marcello paints, Rodolfo writes, Schaunard composes and Colline philosophizes. Meanwhile, they're slowly freezing to death in an unheated garret. How to stay warm? Will they burn Rodolfo's play or Marcello's painting? Two love stories provide the narrative -- Rodolfo with Mimi, a seamstress specializing in silk flowers; and Marcello with Musetta, an unapologetic flirt. The arias Rodolfo and Mimi sing contain some of the most famously lush tunes in opera -- all swooping strings and upwardly gliding climaxes. (English subtitles flash to the right of the stage.)
La Bohème is Giacomo Puccini's perfect opera. By removing the distinction between aria and recitative, he was able to take what would be an excellent but conventional stage drama (Henry Murger's Scenes de la vie Bohème) and set it to music. If opera couldn't get any grander after Wagner's Ring, it could not get any more small-D dramatic after La Bohème. Puccini's goal -- and this production's singular triumph -- is to make the singing transparent, which is not to say that Puccini's music is not at least as witty as his libretto. Leitmotiven are understated, and Bohème's signature -- barely a trill -- is woven into each scene with exquisite lightness.
Puccini treats us to a Cook's tour of la vie bohème, complete with a scene in which Musetta declares her beauty -- and her willingness to exploit it -- then double-crosses her current patron. Has true love ever run smooth? No outside forces capsize this quartet. Instead, they're done in by modern neuroses and old-fashioned jealousy.
Happily for us, Puccini is no moralist. Every theme he romanticizes, such as Rodolfo's lovelorn riffing on Mimi's occupation ("Flowers drop from her hands"), he's sure to dismantle later. The two reunite because they love each other and, as Rodolfo avers, "To be alone in winter is death." As the poet, Steven Paul Spears showed a light touch in both his acting and singing, and his performance gained in credibility and nuance as the show progressed. Lillian Sengpiehl, as Mimi, was far more comfortable with the vocal challenge than with the dramatic aspects of her role. Sengpiehl has what is perhaps the production's most polished voice, but she could not shed a persistent affect of bearing and expression, and she offers not the slightest suggestion of the flower-girl coquettishness that we are to understand has been sending poor Rodolfo into paroxysms of jealousy. This Mimi plays savvy and elegant.
Patrick Hogan's affable Marcello sang with power enough and a delightful ease, even with (as he is supposed to) a mouth full of French bread. Musetta is a dream role, and Ann Hoyt was magical throughout. Baritone Robert Reed and tenor Chris Burchett were strong in the roles of Schaunard and Colline, respectively. Much of the credit for this engaging Bohème must go to conductor Schoonover. His top-notch musicians never wandered into the territory that is so often emotion-soaked and bombastic.