Whether camping it up with a debauched La Calisto, or playing it straight outdoors atop church rooftops in Tosca, Pacific Opera Project (POP) never fails to deliver surprising twists on the traditional. In the case of Puccini’s La Bohème, Director and Company Founder Josh Shaw has abandoned the traditional fin de siècle Parisian setting, instead substituting present-day Highland Park — an apt choice considering the performance location was in the intimate, old Ebell Club of Highland Park. Here, the starving denizens of the Parisian demimonde have been transmogrified into up-to-the-minute East Side hipsters with scraggly beards, trendy eyeglasses and lumberjack shirts.
POP’s irreverent approach to opera seems to be catching on, as there wasn’t an empty seat or table available. And though ticket prices are still low — you can buy a table for four with wine and snacks for $100 — you don’t have to settle for cut-rate talent. While you won’t see the lofty opera-world celebrities you might experience at LA Opera, Shaw manages to attract singers who tend to be young, accomplished and on the upswing of their careers.
Take James Callon, for example. He captured the tenderness and pathos of the besotted lover Rudy/Rodolfo with a dynamic vocal style that convincingly followed the peaks and valleys of his emotional turmoil. Daria Somers, playing his love interest Mimi, offered a clear, ringing soprano, even as she descended into the depths of her illness. Also satisfying were Ryan Thorn’s commanding baritone as Marcello, and Katherine Giaquinto who imbued Musetta with a surfeit of sassy attitude.
More than the changes in time and place, what really sets the tone for this Bohème is the loosey goosey adaptation of the libretto by Musical Director Stephen Karr. He has drastically rewritten the original words, not only to update the references to fit contemporary L.A. (e.g., naming some of the trendy hotspots along York Avenue), but also for a broader comedic effect. By turns snarky and slapstick, the revised libretto works — the crowd was having a jolly time with plenty of laughs.
What I did miss was some of the scale of a traditional Bohème. With only a piano for accompaniment, it was more difficult to lose yourself in the music, which is normally a singular pleasure of a Puccini opera. Also missing was the clamor and excitement of a proper chorus. In the Second Act, most productions typically offer some degree of a raucous street scene with running children, competing vendors and crowds at the café. With this abbreviated cast, we instead get Parpignol, the toy vendor, passing through the audience giving away churros, or the principals kicking back at a Bear Mountain ski lodge…nice ideas, but rather too low-key.
Pacific Opera Project continues to build its reputation for reimagining operas for broader entertainment value, and La Bohème largely succeeds on that level. It reminds us that opera was never meant to be some ossified memorial to a long-dead composer, but, rather, a POPular entertainment that welcomes experimentation and irreverence. Hipsters in Eastside L.A.? Yeah, why not? After the opera I retreated to Highland Park’s own Café Momus, The York, for a drink. Inside were pretty much the same people I had just seen on stage… Puccini would have recognized them as well, I think. Only the hairstyles have changed.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming POP operas, visit www.pacificoperaproject.com.