It’s November 2017, but this past Sunday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, the Long Island Opera Company joined forces with Southold Opera and worked their magic on a rapt audience, transporting us back in time, season and place to Christmas Eve in Paris’s Latin quarter of 1830. The event was a production of the perennially popular “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini.The story is a familiar one, based on the episodic and semi-autobiographical novel by Henri Murger, “Scènes de la vie de Bohème.” It is the story of the doomed love of Rodolfo, a poet, and Mimi, a seamstress and maker of artificial flowers, with the parallel love story of Marcello, a painter, and Musetta, a flirtatious entertainer.
Rodolfo and Marcello live in a garret with Colline, a philosopher, and Shaunard, a composer. They are freezing and hungry. The rent is due. Shaunard makes a sale, and there is sudden temporary wealth for all. The landlord, Benoit, arrives to collect his rent, but is plied with wine to the point of forgetfulness and he is sent away. All but Rodolfo depart for an evening out.
A knock on the door introduces Mimi, the sickly seamstress, seeking a light for her lamp. It is love at first sight. Rodolfo takes note of her cold hands and is suddenly overcome with tenderness. The two depart to join Rodolfo’s friends at the Café Momus.
At the café, Musetta and an elderly admirer, Alcindoro, enter. Musetta flirts with all in sight to make Marcello jealous. Marcello succumbs, as always, to her charms and Musetta sends Alcindoro off to a shoemaker to fix her shoe, which she claims is too tight. The group disperses and the waiter presents Alcindoro, whose wallet is missing, with the bill when he returns.
The relationships of the two pairs of lovers are on again and off again. Rodolfo and Mimi, who are estranged, are reconciled in the third act, after she overhears him tell Marcello that her health can only worsen if she stays living in squalor with him. They agree to part after the winter. Marcello, meanwhile, upbraids Musetta for her flirtatiousness.
In the final act, time has passed. Both men are now separated from Mimi and Musetta yet they can think of little else but their lost loves. They are interrupted by their high-spirited roommates, who return with a sparse dinner which they eat with a comic solemnity. They dance a series of absurd dances and engage in a mock duel. Suddenly Musetta bursts into the room with the news that Mimi is outside the door unable to make the last few steps. They bring her inside. All the others leave to sell what belongings they have, including Colline’s beloved overcoat and Musetta’s earrings, in order to buy medicine for Mimi. Alone together, Mimi and Rodolfo remember how they first met and the love they shared. The death of this frail creature, Mimi, who loved unselfishly, brings a tear even to the eye of the stony-hearted critic.
Jessica Jane Jacobs, as Mimi, sang with an effortless beauty and tremendous romantic appeal “Si, Mi Chiamo Mimi” (“I Am Called Mimi”) had all the delicacy and vulnerability and vocal bloom that one could have desired. Emily Kate Naydeck generated a sensual fire as the flirtatious Musetta. Her aria, the famous waltz “Quando M’en Vo” (“When I Walk Down the Street”), was passionate yet hilarious. As Rodolfo, Tod Wilander sang the famous arias “Che Gelida Mannino” (“What a Frozen Little Hand”) and “O Soave Fanciulla” (“O Lovely Girl”) with as much ardor as any tenor I’ve ever heard. Throughout, his supreme musicality and splendid tenor were a joy to hear. Daniel Klein, in the role of Marcello, presented us with a rich velvety baritone and a performance that was as intense as it was subtly nuanced.
Hyong Sik Jo, as Colline, displayed a plummy and resonant bass, like a deeply upholstered Victorian chair, and was comically touching when he parted with his overcoat, Colline’s one worldly possession. And Ivan Conrad was superb as Shaunard. The slapstick interplay between them was a joy to behold. The very funny Steven Fredericks did double duty in the comic roles of Benoit, the landlord, and Alcindoro, Musetta’s sugar daddy.
I would be remiss not to mention Kevin Courtmanche as the colorful toy seller, Perpignol, with his spinning parasol in the second act.
The chorus was represented by Tom Byrnes, Lucinda Hemmick, Mathieu Levan, Skyler Valderrama and Jessica Shanks.
The excellent orchestra was put through its elegant paces by the superb conductor David Grandis.
The director of the performance and of the entire enterprise was Anne-Julia Audray. She is on the board of the Long Island Opera Company and is the CEO of the Southold Opera. They are the oldest and the youngest opera companies on Long Island. The community is in their debt.
At its conclusion, I stepped back into the real world, and carried with me, for many hours, the immense sadness and extraordinary beauty of Puccini’s tale of doomed love.