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"La bohème" at New York City Opera

- Classical and Cultural Connections

"La bohème"
By Giacomo Puccini
New York City Opera
New York State Theater

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Based on “Scènes de la vie de bohème” by Henry Murger
Conductor, George Manahan
Production, James Robinson
Stage Director, David Grabarkewitz
Set Designer, Allen Moyer
Costume Designer, James Shuette
Lighting Designer, Stephen Strawbridge
Supertitles, Celeste Montemarano
Marcello, Daniel Mobbs
Rodolfo, James Valenti
Colline, Mathew Burns
Schaunard, Brian Mulligan
Benoit, Don Yule
Mimi, Shu-Ying Li
Parpignol, Gregory Hostetler
Parpignol Mime, Marius Hanford
Vendor, Frank Burzio
Alcindoro, William Ledbetter
Musetta, Elizabeth Caballero
Customs House Sargeant, Daniel Shigo
Customs Officer, Ron Hilley
Chorus Master, Gary Thor Wedow
Children’s Chorus Director, Anthony Piccolo
Associate Conductor, Steven Mosteller
Musical Preparation, Susan Woodruff Versage, Steven Mosteller, Marijo Newman
Assistant Directors,
Stage Managers, Peggy Imbrie, Jenny Lazar, Kate Baker

NYC Opera Press: Susan Woelzl

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 21, 2006

New York City Opera’s current production of La bohème includes an expressionistic stage within a stage, angular and foreboding of the dissonance of life, sung in the finest melodies by Puccini. This stage looks like the bohemian venue it would have been in Paris’ famed Latin Quarter in the early days of World War I. We were also treated to a real snowstorm, lifelike train station, and a robust, warm, and elegant nightclub (Café Momus), with giant yellow-lit lettering, a contrast to the stark, drafty, dingy artist loft in which the characters live.

Daniel Mobbs, a strong baritone from Kentucky, as the painter, Marcello, opened the opera with James Valenti, as the poet, Rodolfo, an equally resonant tenor, from local New Jersey. The Montmartre loft is freezing, and they burn original manuscripts to warm by the fire (as Puccini did in his student days in Milan). Colline, the philosopher of the group, and Shaunard, a musician, join the fray, with Matthew Burns as Colline, a rich bass-baritone from Virginia, and Brian Mulligan as Shaunard, a seamlessly smooth baritone from New York State. The bumbling landlord, performed by Don Yule, a powerful bass from Oklahoma, arrives for rent and leaves in a joke on infidelity. This is quintessential comedy/tragedy, the rise and fall of both, as in the pendulum of life.

Sunshine and warmth arrive with Mimi’s (a magnetic Shu-Ying Li, from China) entrance, a neighbor searching for a lost door key, which Rodolfo coolly hides in the suddenly darkened loft, to cause her to linger and swoon into love. They are alone, as the friends have taken off for a local club on Christmas Eve. The Café Momus, replete with smoky glass, etched windows, is a decidedly different ambiance, with champagne, dancing, drinking, carousing, street characters, political protesters, and jealous lovers. That jealousy brings Marcello’s former lover, Musetta (the striking, Cuban soprano, Elizabeth Caballero), to a frenzied aria, as she uses her elder date, Alcindoro (the entertaining William Ledbetter, a baritone from Kansas) as a personal ornament and a financier for her friends’ food and drink. Marcello falls for the act, and runs off with the flirtatious and seductive Musetta.

In a very lifelike train station, with steam and snow, Mimi searches for Marcello to tell him of her estrangement from Rodolfo, who remains jealous of her every encounter. Marcello and Rodolfo speak, while Mimi hides against the shadowy side of the dark, steel train. When Mimi overhears Rodolfo divulging the seriousness of her illness and his undying love, Mimi coughs, a sure alert to her secret presence. Rodolfo and Mimi walk off singing, arm in arm, pledging to live together till spring, but Marcello and Musetta quarrel once again. In the final Act, the lovers have all separated once more, and Marcello and Rodolfo paint and write (with murals on the loft’s walls, as canvas is costly). Furniture is dingy, but the arias are rich. Shaunard and Colline enter with food, and all four sing. When Musetta and Mimi arrive, it is obvious that sadness is at the door, with Mimi’s fragile figure. This will be goodbye. Musetta, the frivolous flirt, shifts to philanthropist, in a classy, conservative costume, and she and Marcello disappear to sell possessions to buy a muff for Mimi’s cold hands and medicine to thwart her rapid demise. Mimi and Rodolfo swear their love, just before Mimi’s final breath, in advance of medical intervention, but in time for her furry muff.

One poignant moment occurred as Mimi and Rodolfo left the train station, with Rodolfo singing of temporary togetherness until the flowers bloom. Mimi, however, sang of wishes that winter never ends. This is an opera of unrequited love, much like a ballet, with the heroine dying at just the moment that her lover realizes, all too late, the depth of his desire. Valenti’s final, renowned aria, as he mourns Mimi, was charismatic, clear, and mesmerizing. Also attention-grabbing was Elizabeth Caballero as Musetta, and her waltz aria in The Café Momus was canary-like and cat-like, at once. Daniel Mobbs as Marcello had a fine moment at The Café, as he wooed Musetta back from her paramour. His endlessly held notes soared with scintillating sound in the midst of the festive scene. Mimi, Shu-Ying Li, created many memorable moments, with elegant, ethereal, vocal qualities, in Acts I, II, and III. She was most effective at the train station, when she still possessed physicality and was so torn and distraught. Her passion shone through her singing with mellifluous musicality.

George Manahan, Conductor, kept the orchestra timely and tight, and James Robinson, who conceived the production, is to be commended for collaborating with young, realistic bohemians with splendid voices, as well as with the effective stage, set, costume, and lighting designers, all of whom have created a production par excellence. Kudos to City Opera for this fine La bohème, and kudos to Giacomo Puccini for his courage and persistence in its creation. According to City Opera notes, Puccini was so “deeply shaken” by the critics’ response on opening night, February 1, 1896, that he lamented, “I toiled for three long years at La bohème…years of anguish, distress, agony of mind and soul, torment, torture, and excruciating mental suffering. I was martyred.” (City Opera Notes). Obviously, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) lived to see the opera’s surprising and immediate success.

Shu-Ying Li as Mimi and James Valenti as Rodolfo.
Photo courtesy of Carol Rosegg

Shu-Ying Li as Mimi and James Valenti as Rodolfo.
Photo courtesy of Carol Rosegg

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at