Minnesota Opera’s prior production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” first seen in 1996 and revived in 2002 and 2010, was an exercise in hyper-realism, a look at life and love in the Latin Quarter of Paris that emphasized the grit and poverty in the lives of struggling but hopeful young artists. The production, with strong casts most of the time, was a success.
The company’s new “Bohème,” unveiled at the Ordway Music Theater Saturday night as the finale of its 54th season, is similarly realistic, which is basically the only intelligent way to present this opera. Heavy directorial concepts don’t work well with “Bohème.” The new production, like the old one, takes us to the not-so-glamorous low-rent district of Paris. The artists live in a shabby one-room garret with a single twin-size bed that apparently can accommodate four fairly large men.
But there is also a picturesque quality to Michael Yeargan’s sets. (Sets and costumes are rentals from the San Francisco Opera, so technically this isn’t a new production.) The garret is an elevated box, like an old-style TV screen, that can be moved aside to reveal the larger set pieces we see later. Walter Mahoney’s costumes are attractive — and almost stylish. Apparently these impoverished artists have their own version of Ragstock.
These are all pluses, but what makes the production a success, in addition to its strong cast and the supple conducting of Michael Christie, is Octavio Cardenas’ staging, which is full of subtle touches and details that put forth the sensible idea that “Boheme,” despite the spectacle of Act II, is essentially an ensemble piece of chamber-music proportion. There are high-spirited moments. The Café Momus crowd scene is well-focused, and the roustabout scenes for our hero Rodolfo and his roommates, so often clumsily staged, evolve here with a natural momentum.
But the prevailing tone of the evening in an opera that can so easily descend to bathos and sentimentality, is a kind of wistful sadness not so easy to achieve. Much of the credit for this goes to the graceful lyric soprano Nicole Cabell, a most affecting Mimi who managed time and again to avoid the clichés associated with this role.
This Mimi is no bedraggled waif when she meets Rodolfo, rather a fragile but dignified young woman, a shy seamstress who seems almost embarrassed by her illness, but who, as we move into Act II, gradually, with the aid of Rodolfo, comes out of her shell. In a touching moment in Act III — possibly the heart of the evening — Mimi turns away from Rodolfo when he discovers her hiding. She doesn’t want him to see how sick she is. The death scene that follows was all the more compelling for being understated. Cabell sang with exceptional delicacy, sweep and purity, floating exquisite high notes that never wavered or turned shrill.
(It seemed odd, though, that our ailing Mimi had to sit on the cold floor as she listened to Rodolfo’s first-act aria. Wouldn’t he at least have offered her a chair?)
Singing Rodolfo, Scott Quinn started out somewhat tentatively in the garret scene, but he quickly took hold of the character and the vocal line, displaying a compact but flexible tenor with ardent, unforced top notes and an admirable concern for dynamic shadings not often encountered in this role.
The others contributed mightily. Edward Parks played a sympathetic Marcello, singing with a commanding baritone. Also excellent were Benjamin Sieverding (Colline) and Thomas Glass (Schaunard). Ben Crickenberger made two usually exaggerated roles, Benoit and Alcindoro, quite believable. Mary Evelyn Hangley delivered a winning and ultimately tender-hearted Musetta, singing the famous Waltz with impressive pizazz.
Presiding in the pit, Christie provided the pulse and tension that Puccini’s music requires, along with the necessary stretching of phrases to support the singers. Drawing polished sounds from the orchestra, he also made the most of the hypnotically beautiful opening minutes of Act III — Puccini at his most poetic.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.