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Soprano Alyson Cambridge plays Mimì in “La bohème,” which is running in Citi Performing Arts Center’s Shubert Theatre in Boston Nov. 2–13.
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La bohème

Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Guiseppe Giacoas and Luigi Illica

Conducted by Ari Pelto

Produced and performed by Boston Lyric Opera

Citi Performing Arts Center, Shubert Theatre, Boston

Nov. 2–13, 2007

La bohème” can perhaps be described as a simple love story, set in the romantic world of bohemian Paris. The poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello are two of your quintessential starving artists. When their neighbor, the beautiful Mimì, comes in to borrow a light for her candle, she and Rodolfo fall in love. Meanwhile, Marcello’s former lover Musetta decides to leave her current man (a wealthy older gentleman) to return to Marcello. However, all does not go smoothly for the lovers as jealousy abounds, and Mimì’s increasingly ill health gets in the way of happiness.

Fans of musicals will probably recognize “La bohème” as the story from which “Rent” is based. The original is quite different but is appealing in its own way. The dialogue of “La bohème” is very formal and seemed somewhat archaic to me, as it was chock full of flowery phrases and over-the-top metaphors. Thus, the effect ranged from being laughable (in the case of the endless comparisons of Mimì to a fragile flower) to poetic and lyrical. Of course, I do not know how the script suffered in translation (the opera was sung in Italian with English subtitles).

However, often when the characters opened their mouths to sing, the music made so much of an impact that the words did not matter. The cast consisted entirely of a group of young singers, all making their Company debuts. The tenor, Derek Taylor, had a lovely, bright voice, and he was both charming and boyish as Rodolfo. Though his character seemed somewhat shallow at times, his serenades were sung so movingly that his love for Mimì could not seem anything but genuine.

In contrast, Mimì’s character came off as a bit fake. She is supposed to be an innocent and pious girl (think Mandy Moore from “A Walk to Remember”) who leads a simple life embroidering flowers. However, Alyson Cambridge’s full, mature voice was not well suited to the role, and her exaggerated gestures made Mimì’s words seem too conceited to be sincere. As a result, she came off as cloying where she should be sweet, coy where she should be shy. For example, in the scene where Rodolfo and Mimì fall in love, Rodolfo never takes his eyes off Mimì while he sings, his heart showing plainly in his eyes and voice. Mimì, on the other hand, does not look at him once and sings to the audience. Does that seem like a woman in love? Though Cambridge has a magnificent voice (perhaps the best of the cast), she would shine more in a different type of role.

Marcello and Musetta made an incongruous pair visually (Marcello was bald and Musetta was African-American), but they were a better matched pair musically. I especially enjoyed the soprano Kimwana Doner as Musetta with her scene-stealing scarlet dresses and outrageously flirtatious ways. Rodolfo and Marcello’s friends, the musician Schaunard (played by baritone Andrew Garland) and the philosopher Colline (bass-baritone Matthew Burns) were excellent as they provided some much needed comic relief to break up the love scenes. Colline’s character was one of my favorites, as he would chime in randomly with some witty, sarcastic, philosophical remark in his deep and delightful voice.

The sets of the show were picturesque, with crumbly stone walls and antique furniture. There was even a giant orange moon for the lovers to be silhouetted against in one scene. The well-designed period costumes also added to the bohemian feel. Despite the stereotype of fat opera singers, Mimì and Musetta were svelte and lovely in their dresses.

The only major problem I had with the show was that the subtitle screens were set on either side of the stage, which meant I had to constantly look away from the scene to read them. This placement was very distracting and made me feel like I was going to miss something while I was reading.

In general, though, the production was very well put together, the voices were excellent, and the music was … simply indescribable. It is no accident that “La bohème” is one of the most well-known and popular operas in the world, and the standing ovation at the end of the show attests to the power it still holds today.