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'La Boheme': A production that's full of heart, finely in tune

Rodolfo and Mimi are two poor people living in the bustling city of Paris.

One evening, they meet by chance. Their eyes meet, their hands touch, they fall in love as quickly as you can blow out a candle.

In the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of La Bohème, Jeremy Cady and Amelia Groetsch's Rodolfo and Mimi are much more true to the modest means of their characters than to their roles' status as, oh, two of the greatest operatic roles in history.

That's not to take an iota from their singing. Save for a few isolated moments where a few phrases were lost, Cady and Groetsch were glorious. His Che gelida manina in Act I was an irresistible declaration and her Act III parting offering Donde lieta usci was heartbreaking.

Both were built on a foundation of character, though, which is why this was about as empathetic a production of La Bohème as you'll see.

Bohème focuses on Rodolfo and Mimi's doomed love, as she is dying of tuberculosis. Puccini's 1896 creation is one of the most performed operas in the world with melodies that are pervasive in pop culture.

Sure, you'll find Bohème productions that are vocal and technical spectacles, such as Kentucky Opera's production two years ago. But this edition finds the story's heart, much like Bohème's 20th-century offspring, Rent.

Director Michael Ehrman brings the show into the 20th-century, setting it in 1920s Paris. It's an excellent match as avant-garde music and art thrived in '20s Paris. So the colony of artists seems at home, while at the same time being more accessible to a modern audience.

Ehrman, along with visiting artist and world-renowned soprano Cynthia Lawrence, made the biggest contributions to making this such an affecting production by helping the singers create deep characters.

Take Cady's love-consumed Rodolfo. His key scene is in Act III, where he tells Marcello he's leaving Mimi because of her flirtations. But we see the weight of reality hit in his eyes and shoulders as he accepts that he's really leaving her because he can't face her death and doesn't have the means to care for her.

The actors also create a strong community among the supporting players of Marcello, Musetta, Schaunard and the other Bohemians so that we see them as familiar friends and channel our emotions through them in the final moments as Mimi's health takes a fatal turn.

Of course, there are a lot of fun moments too, particularly the exchange between Eric Brown's Marcello and Catherine Clarke's Musetta in Act II.

Musetta, Marcello's old girlfriend, shows up at a cafe with her new man. But she's bored with him and wants to make Marcello jealous. As Clarke makes a spectacle of herself, Brown does a masterful job of pretending not to notice here while simultaneously getting really annoyed.

Overall, this Bohème is as complete a production as UK has presented. Many of the singers, including Cady and Groetsch, have professional experience. (A different cast performs Oct. 18 and 25.) The UK Symphony Orchestra under John Nardolillo is flying high, and production values are strong with Richard Kagey's sets and Susan Wiggleworth's costumes.

Lighting designer Tanya Harper subtly adds a key touch, particularly in the finale. Outside the expansive windows of Rodolfo and Marcello's apartment, a late afternoon sun turns to dusk as Mimi fades.

Even the lights are in character.

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