La Bohème (Opera Philadelphia): Time’s arrow

Photo by Steven Pisano

Of Yuval Sharon’s reverse-chronology retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème, the Wall Street Journal says, “It’s not just a gimmick—it works.”

Of course, if you have to say it…

The very first piece I wrote for Phindie—more than (gulp) ten years ago—was a whiny screed against what I considered “gimmickry” in theater. I was basically complaining about productions of classic works that change some fundamental element—the setting, the genders of the lead characters, the order of events—in order to superimpose some kind of nebulous statement onto the material. I found these changes empty and aimless, and argued that they were usually employed to mask a paucity of imagination on the part of the director.

Honestly? Reading the piece today makes me cringe. A decade’s worth of intellectual transmutations and readjustments has essentially reversed my opinion on this matter entirely. There’s nothing wrong with directors and companies taking artistic liberties with works that, after all, have been staged hundreds or thousands of times. In fact, the kind of stubborn conservatism I argued for in 2013 is the exact thing that turns off new audiences, who rightfully have little need for a repertory that remains set in its ways and allergic to change.

So yeah: gimmick or not, I’m down to see what happens when a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient turns La Bohème upside down and inside out.

The upside down part is, as it turns out, pretty straightforward: Sharon has reversed the acts of Puccini’s masterpiece, so that we open in the spring, at the doorstep of a major character’s doom, and we close on the previous Christmas Eve, with our lovers singing in the wings, basking in the light and heat of their newfound passion. Instead of weeping for the dead Mimì as we leave the theater, we weep for the living, for the young and optimistic dreamers who gallop apace in blissful ignorance of what lies ahead.

This temporal topsy-turvyness shifts the dramatic weight somewhat, but the parts of Bohème that we came to see and hear are all intact. The arias, the characters, the violent swings from jollity to tragedy are rendered with as much love and care as in any typical, linear production. But they take on a different color and texture than what we’re used to, and that’s mostly due to the inside out part.

The inside out part is a bit more complicated, and requires more of a risk on Sharon’s part. To lead us through this time-warped rendering, Sharon has added a new character. The Wanderer, played by Anthony Martinez-Briggs, does just what the job title says: they wander around the set, speaking(!) in English(!!), acting as part tour guide, part amateur philosopher, setting the scene and waxing rhetorical, occasionally even stopping the action to ask some form of the following hypothetical: What if it all went different?

Who among us hasn’t asked themselves this question from time to time? What if I’d taken that sales job in Duluth? What if I’d dropped out of school and started that landscaping business? What if I’d thought ahead before ordering the crabcakes?

Our lives, like our beloved dramas, are the sum of choice and chance. And like we in the audience, the characters onstage are stuck with the consequences of both.

As the Wanderer haunts the stage between and sometimes during acts, they prompt us to ask questions about Rodolfo & Mimì & Marcello & Musetta that we might never have even considered. We never needed to: Puccini told us the answers, and virtually every production since the 1896 premiere has upheld his original dicta.

And really, so does Sharon’s Bohème. The Wanderer isn’t here to change the answers. They’re here to engage in the radical, heretical act of questioning, of wondering aloud about the possibilities that didn’t make it to the stage, the choices and chances that could have propelled our beloved characters into more agreeable fates. Far from being a mere narrator, the Wanderer is a tour guide for the modern age, for the battle-weary American viewer who’s spent the last several years living in the midst of near-constant political, ecological, and epidemiological chaos. Is it any wonder they want to turn back the clock from ultimate tragedy to flowering romance? Don’t we all feel the same way?

So it is that we meet Rodolfo (Joshua Blue) and Marcello (Troy Cook) not in the frigid winter of Act I but in the budding springtime of Act IV. Sharon’s choice here is fortuitous, as this act is heralded by an abbreviated version of the same fanfare that typically opens Act I. It’s a testament to the work of Blue and Cook that we buy them as friends immediately, a sensation that solidifies with the arrival of Schaunard (Benjamin Taylor) and Colline (Adam Lau). These fab four share the stage for at least as much time as our tragic lovers, so it’s a relief that they are all so good and so much fun to watch in this production.

Blue is a sweet and magnetic Rodolfo, with a booming voice to match his jovial stage presence. Cook is continually entertaining, even as his highly credible mustache threatens to steal the performance. But my favorite is Lau as the philosopher Colline, who you can tell is the life of the party when the quartet goes out on the town. His Act IV aria, in which he bids addio to his overcoat so he can sell it to help buy medicine for the dying Mimì, can be a real challenge. Of the four, Colline has the farthest and fastest leap from silly to sincere, and it’s a credit to Lau’s talents that his “Vecchia zimarra” carries real dramatic weight, uncorrupted by Colline’s dominant silly side.

Beginning at the end means we have to wait a few minutes for our feminine leads to really take flight. For the coquettish Musetta, the big moment is of course her Act II aria “Quando me’n vo.” It’s hard to breathe new life into such an iconic number, but Melissa Joseph absolutely dominates here. She strides about the stage in something that is either a dress or a wedding cake (h/t to Jessica Jahn’s design and to the impeccable costume staff at Opera Phila) and takes the audience captive along with Marcello and nearly every other Parisian bachelor at Café Momus.

And then there’s Mimì. It cannot be easy to take on a role such as Mimì, a role so heavily laden with history and heritage. But soprano Kara Goodrich is not intimidated. Thanks to the reverse order of the acts, her Mimì becomes more vital, not less, as the show goes on. Goodrich uses this to her advantage. She does not milk the death scene too hard, because in this production Mimì’s death is not the main course. Instead, it’s her quick-blossoming love with Rodolfo that we’re building to, and so she saves her best work for the Act I getting-to-know-you aria, “Si, mi chiamano Mimì.”

Here, we finally see the full breadth of what Goodrich is capable of, and it serves the reverse narrative well. If Sharon’s goal is to shift the audience’s perspective, he’s succeeded by casting a tragic light on the usually euphoric ending of Act I. By the time Mimì reveals herself to Rodolfo, we have already seen what will become of her. As such, Goodrich’s soaring performance takes on a wistful, aching quality. We wish we could freeze Mimì in this moment, to save her from fate and to protect our sweet Rodolfo from life-altering heartbreak.

Of course, it’s precisely at this moment that the Wanderer appears for the last time. Throughout the entire opera he’s confronted the audience with his persistent question: What if it all went different? The Wanderer, like us, wants it to go different, wants it to be happily ever after. They pause the action just as Mimì is about to invite herself to Café Momus with Rodolfo and the gang. This, we see, is the decisive moment of La Bohème: If Mimì stays behind, perhaps she does not become so embedded in Rodolfo’s life. Perhaps both lovers escape the heartbreak that will eventually define them.

In this moment, though, the Wanderer steps aside, allowing the action to continue as written. It’s as if they’re acknowledging that love and tragedy are fellow-travelers. All life ends in death, therefore love is always a risk. You could lose the person you love; your existence could be wiped out at the height of romantic passion. Will the hurt and the sorrow and the deep feelings of loss be worth it?

The conclusion drawn by Sharon is: Yes. Always yes.

That’s the feeling we’re left with as Rodolfo and Mimì stroll into the wings, on their way to grim destiny. Their love may be brief, but it’s still love, the most precious treasure available to us as human beings. Sharon’s production had me remembering the words of that great bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

[Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street] April 28-May 7, 2023;

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