Knoxville Opera, La Boheme, Tennessee Theatre, February 2017
Originally performed in 1896 in Turin, and conducted by Toscanini, La bohème was not an immediate success. Both audience reception and critical notices were tepid, but the opera grew in popularity to become one of the most performed operas for many years. Toscanini repeated his performance for the fiftieth anniversary of the opera and that performance was recorded, becoming the only Puccini opera to be recorded by its original conductor.
Based on the Henri Murger novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the work was also adapted as a play prior to Puccini’s treatment of the topic as an opera. The novel was actually more a set of interwoven stories and both the play and the opera diverge significantly from the original work. The Knoxville Opera production, which runs tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon, represents a second Puccini opera in as many seasons, with the widely celebrated production of Tosca last spring.
The opera follows a group of bohemian friends, a poet, painter, philosopher and a musician. The group lives together in poverty in the Latin Quarter of Paris, pursuing their various arts to uneven financial success. The painter, Marcello, played by Craig Vern in his Knoxville debut, has a tortured and sporadic relationship with Musetta, a singer, played by Julia Lima. The central relationship, however, rests with Rodolfo, the poet, played by Richard Troxell, and Mimì, a seamstress, played by Jessica Rose Cambio in her Knoxville debut. Brian Salesky is music director and conductor, Brian Deedrick is stage director and John Horner designed the lighting.
The opera is set in four vignettes. In the first the four friends are seen in their impoverished garett on Christmas Eve in 1830. After the others go out for the evening, Rodolfo stays behind to write, but is interrupted by Mimi whose candle has gone out in her neighboring apartment. The two fall in love. In act two, the pair joins his friends and Marcello encounters Musetta, his former lover. The set for scene one is stark and spare, while the Cafe Momus in the second scene brings Parisian street life front and center in all its colors and vibrancy.
As the play progresses, the relationships heat up, cool off, wane and return. Of course, it’s not a serious opera unless someone dies, and that box is checked in this production. While Puccini’s work has taken some criticism through the years for the simplicity of his music, the music found in La bohème is alternately beautiful and thrilling. The vocals in this production are as good as we’ve come to expect from Knoxville Opera, and the vocals of all the lead characters are superb. Those of the two couples featured in the story particularly sparkle.
The sets and costuming are as spot on as is typically the case with Knoxville Opera. Even in a production set in an impoverished area and time, the set for the second act, particularly is visually arresting. While I attended the final dress rehearsal, the sound, orchestration and lighting were all very polished, with the lighting and staging of the third act, particularly beautiful.
Lest you fear the opera plays only one emotional note, the presence of large portions of levity should be mentioned. Humor abounds and was one of the selling points to Urban Girl, who stated before the performance that she doesn’t like opera – based on nothing I could discern. Required to stay only for the first two acts, she requested to stay for the final two. The final dress rehearsal for each production is offered for $5 to adults who bring a child. It’s a great way to introduce a very young audience to the operatic experience.
Performances at the Tennessee Theatre are set for 7:30 PM Friday night and 2:30 PM Sunday afternoon. Tickets range from $13 to $99 and are available here. You’ll find the full set of 34 photographs here.