'La Boheme' hits right note with humbler staging

October 29, 2007.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.

Puccini's opera "La Boheme" helped create the icon of the starving Bohemian artist inhabiting a freezing garret in Paris -- and Theater Latte Da reinvigorates it with original orchestration featuring Parisian cafe instruments more in tune with the characters' humble lives.

The remounting of the 2005 hit combines Joseph Schlefke's minimalist music with an intimate venue to make the overly theatrical story feel a bit more real - its charm boosted by the performers' powerful voices.

Meghann Schmidt and Jill Sandager reprise their soprano roles as the women who convey their love for two poverty-stricken artists. Schmidt's Mimi has a demure appeal as she visits the apartment of the poet Rodolfo, seeking assistance in relighting her blown-out candle. James Howes' clear tenor makes Rodolfo a pleasure to listen to, even when he's not spewing poetry.

Sandager's extravagant and passionate Musetta makes a nice counterpoint to the quieter Mimi, and her attraction to the fiery painter Marcello is understandable. Nathan Brian as Marcello displays a young Randy Quaid-like appeal and a worthy baritone.

The two pairs of lovers meet, separate, fight and get back together, but the plot is not nearly as important as the passion - sung across a range of lovely solos and duets.

Roy Kallemeyn as their friend Schaunard also deserves special note for his rich low notes and marvelous expressions in response to the various antics of the lovers.

The Southern Theater is an inspired place to mount the production, since its aged brick and half-plastered, half-repaired walls suggest a building that has seen better days - and neatly merge with Michael Hoover's dark and effective set. The theater's high, airy ceilings let arias ascend, while the modest seating area keeps the experience unusually intimate for opera.

Although Puccini set his story in the 1830s, director Peter Rothstein has jumped the date forward a century, and the Nazis' conquest of France is depicted. Perhaps Rothstein thought setting the show in that dark period of history would enhance the tragic elements.

There are some small problems with the era change, however, notably the use of candles for lighting and fire for heating, which are required by the music and story but not normally by Parisians in 1940. I found the new setting intriguing, but my companion felt it added nothing to the show.

He also found it annoying that the English translations projected on the arch above the stage aren't always in perfect synch with the Italian - but I found that less bothersome, since the gist of what was happening was always apparent.

Rothstein keeps the show moving, so anyone prone to nodding off during opera has a better chance of catching everything. Latte Da's "La Boheme" is la creme of operatic accessibility.


What: Theater Latte Da's "La Boheme"

Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis

When: through Nov. 18

Tickets: $35

Information: 612-340-1725; www.latteda.org

Capsule: A sweet, small-scale production with nice, big voices.