Theater Latte Da's production of "La Bohème" was, as Rox put it, "a treat." Not because it was the best opera we'd ever seen (well, Rox has never been to the opera, and my only experience was seeing The Valkyrie at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on a blind date in 1990, sitting so far back, I wasn't really sure what to make of the experience) but because it was the perfect initiation. The Loring Playhouse is an "intimate" and "cozy" venue. After feeling our way up the dark stairwell to the second floor and into the theater, we chose seats in the 3rd row and settled in. But even if we had sat in the back, we still would have been "up close and personal." And that's nice--to be able to see the expressions on the actors' faces as they sang. (I'm still wondering how people can get their mouths open that way without their jaws locking). It was also easy to read the super titles, though sometimes I found myself just listening and watching the action on stage, kind of carried away on the opera wave.
Puccini's original story takes place in 1830s/40s Paris. Before seeing the production, I could not have told you exactly when the original was set, but I knew there was something not quite right about Act Three, beginning with the soldier sporting a swastika armband who stood on guard at some nondescript compound where TK and Musetta were hanging out and providing singing lessons to the tourists, having abandoned the impoverished residence of the former Acts. Shortly thereafter, we see the yellow star sewn on Colline's (Bryan Boyce) overcoat. Artistic Director Peter Rothstein has moved up the timeline and it now takes place during World War Two. The swastika and star are the signal to the audience as to the era--in case we're not up on our 40's fashion. But that's our only signal. There are no other references, except possibly Colline being "summoned." Summoned? I thought he probably had to report to Nazi headquarters to be shipped off to the death camps. I kept waiting for some follow-up, but nothing. I could not properly enjoy Mimi's (Meghann Schmidt) death (she died very well. I wasn't too fond of her for the first three acts but on her deathbed she seemed somehow more...real, more believable) because I kept waiting for the Nazis to cart off Colline or something.
Rox: Is it my turn yet? It's been two paragraphs and I haven't said anything. Anyway, you're getting political too early on in the review. Talk about the stuff that people care about. The singing, the set, the love story...
Elle: I care. You can't just throw in two visual references to World War Two and leave it at that.
Rox: Yeah, I guess it's sort of ambiguous, unless we both missed something really obvious. Personally, I am accustomed to missing obvious things and all, but you never miss anything. If Rothstein just tossed it in there to build tension, I agree that it struck me as strange and unfinished.
Elle: To me it was like setting a love story in Cambodia in the mid-70s and mentioning Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in passing. Or setting a play 4 blocks away from the Twin Towers on September 11th and having the play be about baseball. You know, a character would say, "Oh, look, the sky is falling." Or "Hey, did that plane just crash into a building? Whatever. I need to work on my pitch."
Rox: Well, it wasn't enough to hinder my experience of the show. In fact, I am proud, really proud, to say I enjoyed the opera. Here I was expecting to be bored to tears, clueless, and praying for the end, but it was the complete opposite. By the end of final act, I was weeping with the rest of them! Can I say why exactly? I don't think so. It could've been the music, or the love story, or the perfect synchronization of those two things. It could be that I was thinking about my own love life-the fact that I have waited forever and a day to meet someone great, and now that I finally have, I spend at least half of the time mourning his sudden would-be death or disappearance. How could I live without him? Certainly, I'd cry and moan for a million days. You see, Elle, the thing I love so much about opera (or what I know of it, anyway) is that it seems to give voice to emotion-not just in words, but also in body. Like if breathing could sing, it would be opera.
Elle: I liked it alright. Jill Sandager was fantastic as Musetta. She was the only one who actually made it seem normal to be up there singing instead of talking. Her facial expressions were priceless and always appropriate to the "action." With everybody else I kept thinking, she doesn't look sad or, is that expression supposed to represent love? It just didn't feel real.
Rox: Well, I liked it a lot. I mean, we were so close to the stage that at one point I made eye contact with the accordion player (more like I was caught staring) and forced myself not to look that way for the rest of the show. Yes, being that close was a treat. As was the music, and the set, and all the talent on stage. Just being able to look at Musetta for so long during her "I'm the bomb" song, sitting so close, was like drinking a tropical Smoothie. She really is stunning to look at, which is so satisfying, not sexually (for me anyway), but just because beauty is so instinctual. And, like you said, the fact that we could walk from our apartments to the opera. How cool is that? That said, I felt cheated about the whole thing.
Elle: What? You've just been singing its praises.
Rox: Why did Rothstein have to make that joke about Mimi dying before the whole thing started? You know, when he was talking about opening night, and he said that someone's cell phone went off during Mimi's death scene and asked us to make sure there wasn't a repeat performance. After a pregnant pause, he said, "Oh, I hope I didn't spoil the ending for anyone," at which point the audience exploded in laughter. Okay. Is that funny? I mean, I can see it being funny in the erudite way that class division can be funny, but in the grand scheme of things, was that appropriate? Sure I could have deduced that Mimi dies from the program, but was that comment suppose to mean I was expected to walk in there having seen La Bohème several times before? Or that only the opera educated were admitted to the show and those who were newcomers to the opera should be punished by having the ending spoiled for them?
Elle: So did you spoil the ending for people reading this review? Yes, you are supposed to know the story. Though I confess I didn't know it either. But that didn't bother me as much as the tossed-off Nazi references, but it relates to what you're saying. Am I supposed to have to research the original opera to try and figure out if maybe it too was set against the backdrop of war and like Rothstein, Puccini just sort of glossed over it. But maybe I should know, and you should know. Maybe I am who I was talking about in our last review--a cultural illiterate.
Rox: Don't be so hard on yourself, Elle. So you didn't know the story either. So Rothstein ruined the ending for both of us.
Elle: But the difference is, unlike you, I don't feel punished, I just feel stupid. And there's nothing worse than being stupid.
Rox: Sure there is. Making somebody else feel stupid. That's my point, Rothstein shouldn't have made that joke for those of us who aren't regular opera goers. It's not the way to bring the music to the masses. Though, maybe in his mind opera is only for the elite
Elle: And the elite ain't us.
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