“La bohème”: RENT in Paris, Sung in Italian

MN Opera's production of La boheme.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Minnesota Opera is running La bohème from now through May 19th. This beloved 1896 Puccini opera was the inspiration for the just as beloved musical RENT. The similarities of La bohème to RENT lends the opera a degree of familiarity that makes La bohème a perfect gateway for audience members who are new to opera.

This is the story of four artistic friends who are struggling to make it both personally and professionally. Their desire to live life to its fullest and hold on to love where they find it is accentuated by the backdrop of a city in crisis.

The performance I attended featured Won Whi Choi as Rodolfo and Melinda Whittington as Mimí (Christian Sanders and Symone Harcum perform those roles respectively on other nights). The pair’s voices blend perfectly. Every duet of theirs is searing – whether joyful or heartbreaking. Joo Won Kang played an incredibly charismatic Marcello alongside Keely Futterer as Musetta. Marcello is alternately played by Jeremiah Sanders, who is fast becoming a favorite of mine. The scenes in which Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline, and Schaunard goof off together were easily the highlight of the production for me. The exuberance of the four friends is catching as they play fight and tease each other.

Benjamin Sieverding, Won Whi Choi, Andrew Wilkowskie, Joo Won Kang, and Charles H. Eaton in MN Opera's production of La boheme.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

The set design was dramatic and effective. Most of the action takes place inside or just outside of the central set piece – a greenhouse-like box of steel and glass that serves as both Marcello and Rodolfo’s shared apartment and a lively dance club. The stage is framed by huge steel beams, which added an industrial, urban edge to the set design.

La bohème is unique in part because of its four-act structure. Although there is just one intermission between Act II and III, there are two additional breaks in which the house lights come up and the audience is asked to remain seated. I was personally delighted by this format, which gave me more chances to chat with my theater buddy and catch up on a couple ongoing text threads.

My one criticism is that several creative choices distracted from the primary action of the show. The costume design was chaotic due to its lack of cohesion in color, fabric texture, or even era. Although individual pieces were gorgeous the overall effect – especially when the entire company was on stage – was overstimulating.

Much of the blocking for background characters was similarly disruptive. Whether it was the bar scene where Musetta’s marvelously arrogant solo was upstaged by constant busy work performed by background actors or poor Marcello, whose duets with Mimí and Rodolfo were literally overshadowed by the dancing shadows in the glass-enclosed club behind him.

Won Whi Choi, Benjamin Sieverding, Charles H. Eaton, and Joo Won Kang in MN Opera's production of La boheme.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

That said, these disruptions were but minor distractions from an overall incredible production. La bohème is a beautiful opera rife with emotion. As the show enters its closing weekend, I recommend catching one of the final performances – and make sure that your pockets or purse are stuffed to capacity with tissues. La bohème has a heartbreaking finale and you’ll barely have time to dab your tears away before you’re on your feet for this opera’s much deserved standing ovation.

La bohème – a production of the Minnesota Opera
Through May 19
Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., Saint Paul

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