Disneyland for grownups

A lively Parisian street scene opens Act II of La Boheme. Photo © Philip Newton

It was the first live opera performance in Seattle in 18 months! So it was a good thing that the music and plot of Puccini’s La Bohème were familiar. It was a little like going to Disneyland with your friends from summer camp. You practically want to hum “It’s a Sad World After All.”

So the challenge, in Seattle Opera’s production, is to offset the on-stage misery. The young bohemians (poets, painters, composers, philosophers) may be starving and freezing, but they’re determined to get through yet another discontented winter. Spoiler alert: the sweet-natured seamstress Mimi–sung by soprano Karen Vuong–doesn’t make it to April, despite her friends’ frantic, last-minute efforts. Colline (Cairo-born bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) even sells his beloved overcoat to buy medicine, to no avail.

The story of these passionate scamps isn’t all about heartbreak, though. Paris in the 1890s was plenty raucous, full of bright colors and brazen sexuality, captured in director David Gately’s staging. The courtesan Musetta, especially–soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson–revels in being surrounded by a “scent of desire” in her delightful aria, By now Ginger Costa-Jackson has become a staple of Seattle Opera casting. Her waltz-time aria,“Quando m’en vo,” is often portrayed as the song of an innocent adventurer in a slinky silk gown, but Costa-Jackson plays her as a scheming hussy (with a heart of gold, of course; she sells her earrings in a last-ditch attempt to save Mimi).

A good thing that the audience knows what’s coming. This Bohème doesn’t slow down to showcase the opera’s big numbers; instead, it showers the audience with musical exclamation points and dramatic sparkles from beginning to end. The set may have been shipped over from Milano for Seattle Opera’s 1965 production, and the costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) have seen three decades of use, but it all fits the “comfort mode” of nursery school familiarity. No complaints.