Le Bro-hème: Puccini’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Javier Camarena appears in recital at LA Opera on October 20, 2019.

Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Bohème is the beloved archetypal opera about Parisian artistes and their lovers set in mid-19th century France. Based on Henri Murger’s semi-autobiographical 1851 book, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, this musical masterpiece opens in the attic of an apartment house in Paris that serves as the studio and living space of four young struggling starving artistes.


Rodolfo (Albanian tenor Saimur Pirgu) is a wannabe poet. Marcello (South Korean baritone Kihun Yoon) is a striving painter, although in this production helmed by Australian Barrie Kosky the dauber also dabbles in daguerreotypes, the then-emerging new photographic medium. Philosopher Colline (Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee) and musician Schaunard (New York baritone Michael J. Hawk) complete the foursome. The relationship of these artsy friends living an unconventional bohemian lifestyle is characterized by great bonhomie, camaraderie and good humor. Indeed, this inseparable

garret quartet could be called “Les Bro-hèmes.”


However, the attic artists’ amicable interactions with one another are in stark contrast to their tempestuous relationships with their lovers. In Act I Mimi (Utah soprano Marina Costa-Jackson), a neighbor somehow hitherto unknown to them, enters the garret, seeking a light for her candle (paging Dr. Freud!). Despite (or due to?) her coughing fit she and Rodolfo hit it off and embark on a passionate affair. Upon their initial “cute meet” the enraptured lovers-to-be sing the duet “O soave fanciulla” (“O lovely maiden”). At one point Rodolfo proclaims to Mimi: “I am a poet and you are poetry,” but soon their romance is beset by more turbulence than a flight during a cross-fire hurricane.


Marcello has an even stormier relationship with Musetta (Rhode Island soprano Erica Petrocelli), a coquette with a gold digger streak, although to be fair Musetta can be a muse and compassionate, generous friend. We encounter the sexy siren at Café Momus, where Musetta is escorted by the elderly but wealthy Alcindoro (New York bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell) and they encounter the “Bro-hèmes”, along with Mimi, at this students’ café in Paris’ Latin Quarter.


In this extended, dazzling sequence director Kosky, German scenic designer Rufus Didwiszus, German costume designer Victoria Behr and the large LA Opera cast join forces to transport viewers back to the sensuous demi-monde of mid-19th century Paris. A sort of carousel is used to give the stage effect of the social whirl of café society, and it spins more than Trump’s White House and addled brain. Some cast members seemed to be scantily clad as they promenaded about the stage, celebrating joie-de-vivre with slapstick, pantomime and gay abandon.


Marcello and Musetta resume their on-again, off-again (in and out again) affair, and Rodolofo and Mimi, too, have a rollercoaster romance of constant ups and downs. Mimi’s likely tuberculosis worsens and Rodolfo is faced with the dilemma of being in love with a partner who is in declining health. Unable to afford to care for his stricken sweetheart, Rodolfo must ask himself: “TB, or not TB, That is the question?” What’s a poor poet to do? (That is, aside from fight for Medicare for all?)


What accounts for the couples’ wild mood swings? They can’t live with each other, but nor can they live without one another. They’re on a cycle of breaking up and making up (and out). Why these incessant highs and lows, while Rodolfo and Marcello are always on such an even keel with Schaunard and Colline? Indeed, whenever they’re together these artistes are the veritable four musketeers, for whom it’s “Bro-hèmes before Ho- hèmes.”


Of course, Puccini seems to be saying it’s the element of sexuality which intensifies and differentiates romantic love from brotherly/ sisterly affection (of heterosexuals). The orgasmic intensity of physical lust heightens the emotions as one enters the realm of the senses (and senseless). Rapture in the quest of cosmic oneness is far more overwhelming and powerful than mere friendship, which Freud referred to as “aim inhibited” (that is, non-orgasm producing). Libido is stronger than intellect.


Of course, it is Puccini’s immortal music that most resoundingly conveys La Bohème’s theme of love lost, with conductor James Conlon twirling the baton that magically elicits Puccini’s heavenly, haunting harmonies and dissonance from the LA Opera Orchestra. In doing so Conlon is amply aided by chorus director Grant Gershon, a Californian, and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus artistic director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, of Vigo, Spain.


The grand finale, wherein Mimi meets her fate, is illumined by original lighting designer Alessandro Carletti of Italy and associated lighting designer Marco Philipp. Mimi is lit against a darkened stage with the deft touch of a Dutch master’s chiaroscuro, as Rodolfo shrieks his beloved’s name. I am convinced this is, as I have written before, the origin of the term “the screaming Mimis.” Thus Puccini screws the pooch.


The peerless performance I attended was transmitted live by nine cameras to thousands watching the simulcast on large LED screens at the Santa Monica Pier and elsewhere. During the curtain calls Maestro Conlon brought his entire orchestra onstage as the audience serenaded the cast and crew with a standing ovation. With Puccini’s Bohemian rhapsody LA Opera has returned like a blazing comet and its 2019/2020 season is off to a meteoric start at Downtown’s revamped Music Center.


LA Opera’s La Bohème is being performed 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2 and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 6 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. For more info: (213)972-8001;


The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is available at: .