Review: Atlanta Opera’s ‘La Bohème’ captures love, loss in 1890s Paris

Sure, Paris is a place of romance and bohemian life in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” but it’s also a city of struggle, deprivation, illness and death. The Atlanta Opera’s lively and engaging new production of Puccini’s masterpiece captures the romance and optimism of young love in the City of Light, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing us the city’s grittier side.

The production runs at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through Oct. 11.

The minimalistic scenic design by Erhard Rom avoids the pitfall of offering up a picture-book pretty, sweetly romanticized image of Parisian life. The Act 1 garret is suggested more than depicted by set elements such as a crumbling wall, an old doorway and a grimy slanted skylight. Lovely snowflakes may drift down on Mimi and Rodolfo as they sing their lovers’ duet in Act 3 at the city gates, but behind them is a dreary, dirty lump of mounded city snow.

The production moves the time period from Puccini’s 1840s to the 1890s and the golden age of French humanist photography, a visual thread suggested by the backdrops of street photographs from the time period and the presence of a young photographer with an old-fashioned, explosive flash among the street vendors and passers-by outside the Café Momus in Act 2. The monochromatic period photographs projected as backdrops throughout serve up a familiar Paris, but also one that has a touch of something appropriately grubby and forlorn about it, with its barren trees, dirty (and often hauntingly empty) streets and old gaslights.

The cast is strong throughout, and opening night seemed to belong to the men, Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova as Rodolfo in particular. His youthful, heroic and clear voice perfectly suggests the poetic, dreamy nature of the character in Act 1, but it can also just as beautifully convey the later anguish and troubled self-awareness that come to the character in Act 3.

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The opening scene in the artists’ garret is especially well done here under the hand of Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, who has an appealingly accessible touch with comedy. There’s a liveliness and naturalism to the knockabout pranks and spirited high jinks of the impoverished artists in their garret that’s so memorable and alive, it inevitably becomes the ironic backdrop for the later sobering tragedy that plays out in the same spot, with baritone Trevor Scheunemann as Marcello another standout among the male singers in both realms.

Maria Luigia Borsi conveys the meekness of Mimi, but the initial entrance on opening night was too meek and soft, almost hard to hear. The soprano more than makes up for it with stronger moments in later scenes, such as a touching performance in Act 3 as the character suggests to Rodolfo that he keep her pink bonnet to remember her by or in her final reminiscence in Act 4 about their first meeting. Her voice sounds especially fine when combined with Terranova’s in duets, one of the most crucial and moving aspects of the show.

Atlanta resident and Lincolnton native Leah Partridge gives us a Musetta that’s proud and brazen, but also intuitive and sympathetic, a blend of trash and class, a flash of color and self-determination in an otherwise dingy city. She avoids making the famous “Quando m’en vo” aria a simple, lovely ditty, but brings out the character’s use of it as taunt and manipulation. The orchestra performs the lushness and grandeur of Puccini’s score under conductor Arthur Fagen but also adapts to the score’s quieter moments and intimate moments of subtly mounting drama.

With fantastic melodies and a simple but moving storyline, “La Bohème” is a timeless classic for longtime fans and first-timers alike. Against the backdrop of an engagingly complex city, the Atlanta Opera’s lively and quickly paced production brings out the universal appeal and heart-melting melodies of Puccini’s great work.

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