Houston — The Houston Grand Opera is back in the newly renovated Wortham Theater after an emergency relocation to a makeshift theater, obviously built in a very short time frame, in a corner of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Hurricane Harvey ruled out the use of the Wortham by severely flooding it and leaving behind a reminder of its devastation in the form of black mold. It was a terrible place for any kind of theater, let alone opera, but they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They bravely called it The Resilience Theater with only a whiff of irony.
HGO is presenting two operas in rotation this fall to celebrate its return to a decent venue, Puccini’s three-hanky La bohème and Wagner’s first big hit, his spectacularly ghostly Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Let’s start with bohème. (Dutchman will appear in a separate review.)
Although it sounds contradictory, this production is quite traditional yet it is a new take on a favorite that can often look shopworn. In this stunning production, we know we are in Paris’ Latin Quarter at Christmastime but director John Caird, and especially designer David Farley’s remarkable set, presents his opera as a pop-up book. Perhaps the fact that one of the bohemians of the title, Marcello, is a painter, served as inspiration.
Farley’s evocative set is constructed out of a montage of paintings, from large flats to small hanging atmospheric canvases, depicting what a real set would look like. Stylistically, they look like a combination of Monet’s seminal 1872 painting “Impression, Sunrise” and David Hockney’s 1982 portrait “Kasmin.”
Farley’s set looks all the more revolutionary, yet ordinary, offset with his traditional costumes that would be at home in any non-bizarre production, right down to Mimi’s fur muff that warms her dying hands. Once you take a close look at Farley’s concept set, the visual effect is stunning.
Thankfully, the opera’s four short acts are presented with only one intermission. Thus, it is a short evening without three intermissions, clocking in at a mere two hours and fifteen minutes. That is about the same running time as the first act of Wagner’s final opera in his four opera Ring extravaganza, Götterdämmerung.
The story is about a gaggle of dirt-poor artists living in an unheated garret. Marcello, a painter, is grousing about his volatile relationship with his sexy but volatile girlfriend, Musetta. Rodolfo, a poet, stays behind when his friends all go out to celebrate Christmas Eve. As luck would have it, a neighbor of the female persuasion knocks on his door to get her single candle relit. She is beautiful but frail and clearly in poor health. One thing leads to another in very short order and they are in the ecstasies of young love by the end of the act. Things do not go smoothly because of her downward health spiral, she has soprano-disease (consumption), and Rodoflo’s bad case of tenor-disease (jealousy). The next act takes pace at Café Momus, a real place that serves as a meting place for artists. Everyone is having a grand time. Musetta shows up on the arm of a rich and ancient sugar daddy. But everything ends with love and forgiveness. In act three, we find Marcello and Musetta fighting in an inn outside of Paris here they are currently employed. Mimi shows up hunting for Rodolfo, who left her in a fury that very night. Everyone kisses and make up, even though Musetta and Marcello trade insults as the act ends. The last act is Mimi’s tearful death scene.
They cast is uniformly excellent with voices that Puccini dreamed of when he wrote the opera. All are Italianate squillando red-sauce voices with thrilling high notes. The fragile Mimi of soprano Nicole Heaston and the ardent tenorish Rodolfo of Ivan Magrì are easily believable as the accidental lovers. Both have perfect voices for the roles and sing with a dedication to Puccini’s intent. Both actually sing some passages softly, which makes a dramatic effect.
As Marcello, baritone Michael Sumuel sings with a darkened and deepened version of Magrì’s voice. Pureum Jo’s flouncy and brazen Musetta is the complete opposite of Heaston’s modest and quiet Mimi.
The other two roommates in the garret are excellent foils to the dreamy Rodolfo and the explosive Marcello. Bass Federico de Michelis’ Colline steals the show with his last act and melancholy farewell to his worn topcoat. He plans to hock it to get Mimi some medicine—too late as it turns out. Baritone Geoffrey Hahn’s Schaunard offers a completely different personality to the four rowdy guys. He brings a touch of humor to the more serious goings-on. Anyone who has been to a college beer bust will know that their horseplay in both the first and forth acts is believable.
As is traditional, baritone Héctor Vásquez plays both the harried landlord, Benoit, in the first act and the doddering but rich old man that Musetta captures in her net, Alcindoro. As Benoit, he blusters about how sexy he is. As Alcindoro, he is unrecognizable in his hapless efforts to please the demanding Musetta.
Conductor James Lowe leads the HGO orchestra in a rubato-laden performance that offers great sweep when required and tender moments when just a few instruments play. Balance with the stage was always correct on opening night (Oct. 26), but there were a few intonation problems in the wind section that didn’t detract from the overall effect.