Kosky’s Stark ‘Bohème,’ A Wild Second Act Aside

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A look at Act II from Barrie Kosky’s new staging of ‘La bohème’ that opened the Los Angeles Opera’s 2019-20 season. (Production photos by Cory Weaver)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – It was opening night for the Los Angeles Opera season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sept. 14. The gowns and tuxes were on full conspicuous display. The newly renovated and re-opened Music Center plaza was shrouded by a curtain, behind which the annual post-opera gala banquet took place on a hot late-summer evening. The opera du jour was that old reliable box office perennial, Puccini’s La bohème – which, believe it or not, actually had its U.S. premiere in 1897 right here in then-remote Los Angeles – all decked out in a new production from Berlin’s Komische Oper by one of opera’s hottest stage directors, Barrie Kosky.

And yet, a shadow was hanging over the festivities cast by the man who wasn’t there. As the whole world is aware, Plácido Domingo, Los Angeles Opera’s celebrated general director, a driving force behind the company even before it had been founded 33 years ago, is under investigation by his company for alleged sexual harassment. Granted, Domingo – who usually participates on opening night here, whether as singer, conductor, or company head – was away preparing for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth (as of this writing, his appearance there Sep. 25 was still on). But Domingo’s usual essay greeting operagoers was conspicuously missing from the program book. Pre-opera conversations in the lobby inevitably turned to the subject of the beleaguered tenor-conductor-administrator. No one knows what’s in store for this company if and when the next shoe drops.

Normally, a company wouldn’t go through a whole lot of trouble with this particular opera on the boards. You can slap a blank poster on a wall near the box office, write the words La bohème on it, and the people will come. Every time.

Bohemians: Michael J. Hawk (Schaunard), Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo), Kihun Yoon (Marcello), Nicholas Brownlee (Colline).

Since 1993 (most recently in 2016), LA Opera has been repeatedly reviving the late film and theater director Herbert Ross’ evocative, nostalgic production with its romantically literal re-creation of Paris’ Latin Quarter from Puccini’s time in Act II’s Café Momus scene. They probably could have kept it going indefinitely, even though the sets were getting visibly worn and grubbier. The casts – usually populated with young, generally unheralded singers on the rise – often settled for routine. No matter. The people came.

They will no doubt keep coming even though Kosky’s ideas about Bohème are nearly diametrically opposed to those of Ross, which is in itself a good idea in order to hopefully break up the routine. While Ross’ Bohème tended to look backwards with a warm glow of memory, Kosky looks forward, seeing the piece as a key opening the door to the dangerous 20th century, having his cast of young characters experience the shock of death for the first time in their lives. While Ross embraced crowd-pleasing sentimentality, Kosky would have none of it, though paradoxically not denying the strong emotional pull of the music.

Marcello is a photographer, not a painter, in Kosky’s production, which dispenses with Benoit the landlord.

Accordingly, the first and fourth acts were played against bare concrete walls lined with badly faded daguerreotypes set way to the back of the stage, with sparse exposed plumbing, just a single chair on the platform, and a trap door below for Mimi to emerge from. This was a stark representation of poverty, nothing nostalgic about this place. Act III had even less: everything stripped down to a bare stage.

Marcello, usually a painter, experiments with early photography in this production, shooting portraits with a vintage pre-film camera that uses photographic plates, and the other characters also take turns behind the lens. For some reason, Kosky eliminated the minor character of Benoit the elderly landlord, with the bohemians doing a comedy routine in which they themselves acted out and sang Benoit’s lines. No adult supervision in this garret.

Musetta (Erica Petrocelli) strikes the usual flamboyant pose in Act II.

Most productions tend to spend the bulk of their resources on the busy-busy goings-on at the Café Momus in Act II, but none that I’ve seen went to quite the extreme as Kosky did. It was a Parisian bacchanal revolving on a turntable, with all kinds of ribald and festive scenes (opium pipes, simulated sex, etc.) coming and going. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was grotesquely costumed, and the concluding marching band had skull masks perhaps forecasting the intrusion of death in the bohemians’ lives. For once, the stage was big enough to accommodate the cavorting and carrying on by a huge cast of singers and extras, although all of this fascinating hustle and bustle made it difficult to concentrate on the lead characters.

If the intent was to strip away the sentimentality that has encrusted past productions of Bohème, it was only partially achieved, for the music’s innately sentimental harmonies still came gushing through openings in the dike. There are things that Kosky found in the libretto that are seldom acted upon; for example, in Act IV, Mimi emerges, however deathly ill, in a fancy ball gown no doubt bought for her by the Viscount whom she had just left in order to die in the bohemians’ garret.

Ultimately, the most potent driving force that made this Bohème rise above the level of routine was conductor James Conlon. Usually the music director of an opera company farms out Bohème to an assistant or guest (in 2016, Gustavo Dudamel parachuted in toward the end of the run), but Conlon took it on himself. He was energetic as always while finding and projecting a symphonic richness with dark shadings that we seldom hear in live performances of this overplayed opera. He highlighted intricacies in the score that are usually overlooked, artfully shaped the accompaniments of the hit arias for his singers, held out the final quiet notes in Act I to eloquent effect. It makes a big difference when you have someone sweating the details in the pit.

Music director James Conlon, sweating the details in the pit, brought a symphonic richness to the score. (Dan Steinberg)

Marina Costa-Jackson – one of three Costa-Jackson singing sisters (Ginger and Miriam are the other two), all with different quality voices – delivered a pleasingly full spinto soprano timbre bordering upon mezzo territory as Mimi, rising more easily above the swelling of the orchestra than her colleagues. Soprano Erica Petrocelli was the usual showoff floozy Musetta at the café, adopting the traditional dignity and compassion in Act IV. Tenor Saimir Pirgu rapidly warmed up his Rodolfo in time for some power and ardency in “Che gelida manina,” while baritone Kihun Yoon displayed his most assured singing as Marcello in Act IV. Baritone Michael J. Hawk was a bit weak as Schaunard, but bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee bid a sonorous farewell to a rather flamboyant-looking coat for a starving philosopher in Act IV.

Marina Costa-Jackson portrayed a Mimi out to enjoy life, despite being sick.

Finally it’s worth noting that five of the eight lead cast members are members or alumni of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, and Costa-Jackson was a winner in Domingo’s Operalia 2016 competition. The company’s leader may have been absent, but his influence remained.

La bohème continues through Oct. 6. For tickets and information, go here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.