Merrily We Roll Along premiered on Broadway in 1934. George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play began in the present and ended it in 1916, tracing their characters’ stories in reverse from experience to innocence, ending with the beginning. Yuval Sharon’s production at Boston Lyric Opera upends La bohème in similar fashion while also recasting one of opera’s key tropes, the conflict between love and death. For once, love has the last word – literally – as Mimì and Rodolfo fade out repeating the word, “amor”.

Jesus Garcia (Rodolfo) and Lauren Michelle (Mimì)
© Olivia Moon

The use of a mildly raked revolving stage, evocative lighting and performing the opera uninterrupted (jettisoning only Benoît’s scene in Act 1) lends an unusual fluidity to the action. Set decoration is minimal and the characters are constantly handing off props to costumed actors who approach the sides of the disk, moving stiffly and robotically. A narrator, The Wanderer, briefly comments before the acts and is occasionally a silent participant in the action. At first, his presence is jarring, as if Scatman Crothers had wandered in from The Shining. But then, as the boundary-dissolving quality of Sharon’s production sinks in, it becomes clear that this Latin Quarter is as much New Orleans as Paris. Act 1’s Christmas Eve celebration looks more like Mardi Gras, with its costumes and use of a large papier-mâché puppet and masks. Three times, The Wanderer stops the action to ask what would have happened if a certain character didn’t do what they’re about to do. These interruptions smack of study questions at the end of Cliff Notes, a distraction easily dispensed with.

The fluidity extends to the projected titles which freely translate the Italian text and even ignore it. For example, “strega” in the volley of invective between Marcello and Musetta becomes “whore” and Schaunard’s reference to a flirtation with the Englishman’s maid becomes a flirtation with his butler, hinting that the staging’s suggestion that Schaunard and Colline are more than just roommates is more than just a suggestion.

At the Café Momus
© Olivia Moon

A youthful cast lent high energy to the proceedings and an easy athleticism to the bohemian roughhousing. In general, the voices are lighter, but thanks to David Angus’ supportive and nimble leadership, they were never covered. Perhaps having the orchestra seated on the floor contributed to this, but it certainly allowed many aspects of Puccini’s score to be audible for the first time, especially the role of the harp. Jesus Garcia’s Rodolfo and Chelsea Basler’s saucy, self confident Musetta benefited most from his sensitive conducting. Twenty years ago, Garcia sang Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning staging of La bohème on Broadway. Since then, his voice has dried and tightened. The upper range can sound pinched and where it used to expand to match the expansive moments in his part it often doesn’t now. Still, he paced himself well and made the most of what he can do now. Lauren Michelle’s full-voiced warmth and solid technique helped create a multi-faceted Mimì, capturing the character’s strength and fragility. Her voice carried and bloomed in the challenging acoustics.

Lauren Michelle (Mimì) and Edward Parks (Marcello)
© Olivia Moon

The fact that the three bohemians were played by able singing actors who sang and moved well and confidently was a major plus. Edward Parks was a first-rate Marcello, more than just Rodolfo’s wing man; Benjamin Taylor a jolt of energy whenever Schaunard appeared and a born scene-stealer; while William Guanbo Su’s Eeyore earnestness as Colline was brightened by a puckish demeanor. Junhan Choi was an appropriately befuddled and beleaguered Alcindoro who knew how to take a punch when Marcello decked him flat in Act 2.

Whether done in reverse or in the normal sequence without The Wanderer, this is a captivating and dynamic production, making a very convincing case for performing the opera uninterrupted and on a more intimate scale. 

****1