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Love and death. Pain and poverty. Desire and desolation.
They are ingredients as old as human existence, and in the hands of Giacomo Puccini, they form the emotional bedrock of La Bohème, considered by many the most popular opera of all time.
Toledo Opera will tap into that classic zeitgeist next weekend when it stages Puccini’s compelling love story for the first time since 2012.
Premiered in February of 1896, La Bohème relates the tale of four artists living in an attic garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. In typical Bohemian fashion, they are all broke and struggling to survive in the midst of a freezing winter.
The characters include a painter, Marcello, a dramatist, Rodolfo, a philosopher, Colline, and the violinist Schaunard, and opens with the four burning Rodolfo’s latest manuscript for heat as they cannot afford a bucket of coal for the tiny apartment’s furnace. The ethos is camaraderie, fellowship, and hope in the face of overwhelming odds.
As the action continues, their next-door neighbor, Mimi, a poor girl who makes artificial flowers for a living, knocks on the door, having lost her key in the dark. Her hands are so cold, she has dropped the tiny object.
It is love at first sight for Rodolfo. He quickly finds the key and purposefully hides it so that Mimi must spend more time with him.
What ensues is the twin story of their ill-fated relationship and that of Marcello’s for the vixen temptress Musetta. Schaunard and Colline get lost in the shuffle.
It is one of the most beautiful explorations of love ever penned: tender, delicate purity juxtaposed against raw, immature passion.
Over the course of four acts, the two couples mature in understanding and responsibility, as they watch Mimi slowly sink into the gruesome hands of death by consumption (tuberculosis).
She eventually succumbs [operas aren’t prone to happy endings], dying in Marcello’s arms as the petals of spring flowers drip from the trees signaling the rebirth of life from the depths of winter.
The action is accompanied by some of the most beautiful music ever written: soaring lyricism, stunning orchestration, and unforgettable melodic lines. Even opera haters find something to love in La Bohème. Every major opera company in the world has staged the show, and it was the source material for the Broadway musical Rent.
The Toledo production, fully staged in Italian with English subtitles, has a particular edge over most other stagings. James Norman, the opera’s head of artistic administration and production, assembled a cast of four principals perfectly typecast for the roles.
Not only are all the principals the appropriate age (young up-and-coming singers) and veterans of past Toledo Opera productions, all are good friends who have worked together in other productions across the country. Indeed, the amiability of the four as they sat for a recent interview was astounding.
Rarely do opera singers share the same stage, let alone the same interview, with such mutual good will. For Norman, it was a spark of casting that bodes for one of the best productions of the opera ever.
Stage Director Jeffrey Buchman, also a veteran to the Toledo company, said the cast’s chemistry was apparent after their first rehearsal. “All of the singers are exactly who they are supposed to be. Young artists trying to make it in the world. They share the same hopes, aspirations, and experiences as the characters in the opera.
“It makes my job easy,” he continued. “I just need to help them unlock what they already know. ... I need to open doors for them and ask them to step through — to access what they internally possess and bring their energy and spirit to the space and moment — molding it into a spectacularly honest and true Bohème.
“I’ve been doing this work for 25 years, and every time I walk into a rehearsal room, I feel lucky that I can continue to do what I love. This production is certainly no exception.”
Brian Major, who plays Marcello and comes to Toledo from Philadelphia, finds “The most challenging thing about the opera is the fact that [my] character is not 1-D or 2-D, but he is given so much sing time, that there is ample opportunity to open the role to true growth and change. He can respond to the reality of what is presented by the other characters rather than just responding in a preconceived way because of time limitations found in other operas.”
Major shares the distinction of having sung his role before opposite this production’s Rodolfo, Zach Borichevsky; they sang it together in their young artist training days in a 2009 production in St. Louis in English.
Borichevsky said, “The opera is actually my favorite of all that I have performed. Its various layers make it a masterpiece. In spite of the number of times I have done it, there is always something new to discover; something which I can bring to the audience which makes the role humanly real and fresh to me.”
Alicia Russell, who will be making her debut performance in the role of Musetta, said the challenge “is that her character, “is the exact opposite of who I am inside. She begins [as] a young, temptress type, doing what she must to survive. Over the course of the opera, however, she is the one who matures the most.
“Musetta becomes an adult, helping the others to realize that they must do what they must do because they have matured to face responsibility in the face of tragedy. She works the hardest of the four to find a way to make it in the world and still be who she really is inside.”
As Mimi, the dying flower girl, Jessica Dold, brings her own personal experiences to the role. With tears in her eyes, she related how she actually sang the role the first time as her own life partner was struggling with a debilitating lung disease which eventually led to a transplant.
“My concept of Mimi has grown. [Back] then, the role was cathartic, processing what I was going through personally,” she recalled. “Now I see her as a trying to live what she has left timewise to the fullest; refusing to live in constant fear of the future, but rather savoring each moment for its fullness. My emotional connection to her is so strong.”
Asked what they hoped what the audience would take from their production, practically in unison they chorused, “The events are universal; everybody has to pay the bills; everybody experiences love.” Another said, “The work is full of the truths of real life: love, growth, responsibility, and death. Puccini presents all the possible ways people can love each other in a single work. All set perfectly to music.”
Assisting in the production will be Peter Morgan (Colline), Keith Harris (Schaunard), Donald Hartman (Alcindoro/Benoi), and Jeawook Lee (Parpignol), the Toledo Opera Children’s Chorus and the Toledo Orchestra, all under the baton of veteran conductor James Meena.