A faithful, delightful rendition of ‘La Bohème’

Andrew Meacham reviewed: Now and then, someone launches a contemporary version of La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s paean to love and loss, with mixed results. A production in Washington, D.C., set the downtrodden artists in the 1980s club scene. Another, in Oslo, started the show with the heroine, Mimi, who we already know will die at the end, in a cancer ward.

If these interpretations didn’t go over so well, it’s hard to fault the companies for trying. Bohème has been a hit since its inception, was feted a century after its opening with a 1996 musical derivative, Rent, done and redone. It might be opera’s most faithful warhorse, always ready to battle recession and changing demographics, a hedged bet when other risks have been taken.

So far, the decade-old St. Petersburg Opera Company has concentrated on establishing itself and the art form in traditional ways. The current production of La Bohème was no exception, a lovely retelling of a classic, well-cast and more than ably sung. While Puccini’s score deservedly carries the mantle, a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa — and, before that, an 1846 episodic novel by Frenchman Henri Murger on which it was based (Scenes of Bohemian Life) — seems worthy of mention every hundred years or so. Bohème reminds everyone of everyone’s youth, artistically wasted or otherwise.

They paint and write poetry and make wreaths out of artificial flowers. They drink too much and are late on the rent. They share secrets and lean on others for support.

The leads carry the load. Kyle Tomlin largely masters a delicate role as Rodolfo, a poet smitten with his neighbor. His tenor voice is more rapier-like than hugely capacious or rafter-blasting. But where some singers might rush through the more conversational portions of the libretto, he does not. His duet at the close of his first scene with Mimi, the neighbor, nails the first act and sells the rest of the show.

Danielle Talamantes delivers a pro’s performance as Mimi, all the more remarkable for its understated quality. She introduces herself shyly and a chest cough foreshadows the rest, then builds the vocal castle as her illness progresses. This is the St. Petersburg Opera debut for Talamantes, who is between seasons at the Metropolitan Opera. Hopefully she will be back.

As with other productions, care has been taken to cast supporting roles. Jesse Stock takes an especially sympathetic and powerful turn as the painter Marcello. His romantic counterpart, the saucy Musetta (Michelle Seipel) delivers a strong (and at times, nearly show-stealing) performance. Bass-baritone Jeremy Milner earned appreciative applause for his doleful aria as the philosopher Colline, about to pawn his coat for Mimi’s medicine.

Set designer Warren Sodt and conductor Mark Sforzini found another way to allow the orchestra to be heard at the Palladium (which has no pit), this time by tucking musicians behind open doors inside the set. Scene changes sometimes created barriers to that sound, but the orchestra still made its way unadulterated about half the time.

I do have one note on the opera’s conclusion, as Tomlin apparently decided to underplay Rodolfo’s grief. His deep-in-thought physical posture is a little confusing, since it’s unclear if he even realizes his girlfriend is dead. The opera just sort of ends without a clear sense of resolution.

Nonetheless, this is a loyal and loving reproduction of La Bohème, which has endured for a reason.