The strengths of Kathleen Belcher’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème were vivid characterization and good singing.

Georgy Vasiliev (Rodolfo) and Raquel González (Mimì)
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

There was plenty to like about the principals. Georgy Vasiliev as Rodolfo delivered the much-loved Act 1 aria without over-dramatised histrionics, but with genuine passion and a rich sustaining sound. He was consistently compelling. Raquel González’ Mimì was played, at the start, more coquettishly than usual: she deliberately blew out her candle and fixed her hair before knocking on her neighbour’s door, clearly primed for flirtation. Shortly after, she was prone over the table, it was unclear whether from illness or ruse – perhaps Belcher meant it to be both, which would have been a new angle on Mimì, showing a capacity to self-dramatise her as yet minor symptoms – but Gonzalez didn’t quite seize either. Her fluid tones married well with the orchestra; how typical of this most endearingly clueless of opera heroines that her own account of her life would fade into insignificance, vocally and textually: “I’m just a neighbor who came to bother you”.

What was highly successful throughout was the comedic element: this may have had the effect of downgrading pathos, but so be it. The insouciant antics of the shivering creatives – Vasilev along with Timothy Renner (Marcello), Christian Zaremba (Colline) and Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard) – were captured adroitly and elicited many a laugh. Belcher was particularly drawn to their capacity to experience ”life in the moment“ and she certainly got across their happy-go-lucky welcome of good times, a lightness constantly challenged by the invariable (and inevitable) return of the bad (debts, cold, failure). In the scene in Café Momus, where Rodolfo and Mimì present as a brand-new, loved-up, overly-clingy couple, the amusement, skepticism, irony and embarrassment of the male friends was highly realistic.

Sylvia D’Eramo (Musetta) and Timothy Renner (Marcello)
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Sylvia D'Eramo as Musetta was a scene stealer as well she is meant to be in Act 2. Her voice was distinctive – highly florid and excitable – but it seemed entirely apt for the part of the demi-mondaine, intent on playing one man off against the other. Watching her, I thought “power and puerility”, that capacity to flaunt her feminine charms edged by the tinge of desperation. Who did she belong to? It was played just right, and the gesture of depositing the bill with the “respectable” homme d’affaires met its target.

The set design, courtesy of R. Keith Brumley, was conventional and without particular distinctiveness. One can’t go too far out of line with an unkempt garret interior, littered with frames and poorly hung sketches, with buildings and rooftops in the distance to suggest the claustrophobic and unhealthy nature of urban life in Paris in the 19th century. In the Christmas Eve street scene, we were not without noticing that one of the shops was selling corsets: a sly indication of the obvious constraints women lived within physically and in other ways too. Of course, Mimi’s ”price“ is not that, but Rodolfo’s gift to her of a bonnet is a status symbol in itself, raising her above the typical straw-hat of a working class girl.

La bohème by Lyric Opera of Kansas City
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

The orchestra, under the baton of David Charles Abell, lent its forces to the emotional range of the score. Sometimes, I felt that there were opportunities not taken. The opening upward motif, indicative of the eternal optimism (and scrambling circumstances) of the Bohemians (later used as a glaring irony), didn’t quite seize the theatre; nor did the final chords, where it has to sing of the unsingable loss. Much about the last scene was quite touching: I found Musetta’s fiddling gestures with the end of the blanket, in an effort to provide minor comfort to her dying friend, rather lovely and Rodolfo was just as he should be – hopeless, practically, but such a lovely tenor voice which makes up for most incompetence in this life. Mimì died nicely and sedately as she always does, but I wanted much more colour from the orchestra here. Money might be constantly scarce in this much-loved Puccini opera but sound ought not to be. But perhaps it wasn’t just the orchestra; the whole production did not drip with pathos and perhaps we were left with the impression that those fun-loving Bohemians get over the Mimì episode. She had to die; she was too serious, as one of them had said. Tomorrow would be another (and a better) day.