My first encounter with La bohème was on television, a mid-1950s NBC Opera Theatre performance: I was mortified that my mother cried at the end. Barely a decade later, I was a budding opera-fan at college in New York, and my first live Bohème was historic: the final opera at the old Met, 1966. Jerome Hines as Colline addressed his overcoat-farewell to the “vecchio teatro” as he faced the exquisite auditorium and its sorrowful occupants. Not only was Mimì dying, but America’s greatest opera house was doomed to – execution.

Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì) and Evan LeRoy Johnson (Rodolfo) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì) and Evan LeRoy Johnson (Rodolfo)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Since then, I have experienced Bohème countless times and I invariably get choked up at the end, torn by the orchestra’s searing, briefly dissonant version of Mimì’s near-death tender phrase beginning “Sono andati?” and Rodolfo’s desperate cries of “Mimì!”

Last Friday, I was once more swept up by it all, drawn to these six very real, sympathetic Bohemians speaking so naturally in the ingenious texts of Giacosa and Illica, and I marveled again at the brilliance of Puccini’s musical portrayals of everyone and everything, including the tiniest details of action.

“Portrayals” took on added significance in this production by Opera Philadelphia in partnership with the Palau de les Arts ‘Reina Sofia’ in Valencia, Spain, originally presented in 2012. Inspired by the Impressionist troves at The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes Collection, Turin-born director, set and costume designer Davide Livermore moved the action to 1895, when Puccini wrote Bohème, transforming the garret into a large abandoned art gallery with diagonally-placed walls (screens) stage right and upstage on which to project videos – some animated – of Renoir, Van Gogh and Pissarro. Livermore’s assistant, Alessandra Premoli, staged this revival.

Café Momus © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Café Momus
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

When I first saw it, I often found the illustrated walls intrusive, their vast single paintings alternating with busy collections of canvases. But I loved the fact that this Marcello was producing many of the works downstage on his easel! Unrecognized genius! This time, I still found some of the artwork distracting, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning from black and white to color at the lovers’ first kiss rather a directorial gimmick: they stay on a red sofa, making love, instead of leaving for Café Momus, where they appear, on the sofa, as Act 2 opens around them. A large painting of a young grey-blue-clad woman lying face down on a red sofa is the main image of Act 4: aha!

But I did enjoy the Red Sea’s tumultuous waves at the opera's opening and the smoking Parisian chimneys as described by Rodolfo; the moon glowing (and on the easel, pulsating!) for Rodolfo’s comment about the moonlit night; and in Act 2, the upstage screen becoming Van Gogh’s Starry Night above the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Kudos to the Italian design-company D-Wok for the animation.

Marcello (Troy Cook) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Marcello (Troy Cook)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Livermore’s costumes also reflected the paintings: for example, a dress for Mimì based on Renoir’s Girl in Grey-Blue and the “cuffietta rosa” that Rodolfo buys Mimì resembling the one worn by Renoir’s Girl with Pink Bonnet.

I often suspect that directors think they know better than the creators, as in the aforementioned Act 1 finale. Earlier, when Mimì faints, Rodolfo asks “Now, what shall I do?” and then sprinkles water on her forehead, to precise music and stage directions. Here, he just stood, staring, and the audience laughed at his words. Mimì simply revived herself. The score dictates specifically that they look for her key, he finds it, exclaims “Ah!” and pockets it, but denies this when she asks. Here, his “Ah!” is because he burnt his hand on the stove-top(!), again just standing; he finds the key later. Anti-score, and did the director forget Act IV? Reminiscing, Mimì describes the scene (as written), admitting she knew he found the key!

Evan LeRoy Johnson (Rodolfo) and Troy Cook (Marcello) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Evan LeRoy Johnson (Rodolfo) and Troy Cook (Marcello)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

The singers were among the best Bohemians I’ve encountered: vocally excellent, expressive, and convincing actors. Vanessa Vasquez, a 2018 AVA graduate, has always enthralled me with her luscious, warm voice, easing effortlessly to hall-filling volume; I can’t recall a Mimì so fully expressing the rapture of the first sun of April: for her, it is life. Evan LeRoy Johnson, whose Lensky at Curtis in 2017 so impressed, fulfilled that promise with beautiful sound, strong high notes, and tenderness both vocal and interpretive. Strong-voiced Troy Cook's Marcello was a perfect foil for Ashley Marie Robillard’s bright-voiced Musetta. Peixin Chen’s sonorous Colline gave a very touching addio to his beloved coat and Will Liverman was charming in his brief Act 1 monologue as Schaunard.

What a treat to hear the final “Amor” that ends Act 1 as written by Puccini and conducted here by Corrado Rovaris: pleasing harmony, not the high-note competition so many tenors have made it. Rovaris, as always attuned to the singers, emphasized instrumental details not always heard, while staying true to the composer. Bravissimo!

*****