SALT LAKE CITY — Until Saturday night, I’d always had my doubts about opera.
Watching a group of people with dramatic, high-pitched voices sing in a foreign language didn’t seem like my idea of a good time.
I also wasn’t a fan of having to dress elegantly. After all, I’d seen the film “Moonstruck," where Cher goes to her first opera in a stylish black gown, accompanied by a tuxedo-clad Nicolas Cage.
But as my husband proved, you won’t be kicked out for donning more casual attire, although it should be noted that most in attendance were dressed quite elegantly.
Only a few minutes into Utah Opera’s stirring production of “La Boheme” did I realize just how foolish my doubts were. The company kicked off its 40th season with Giacomo Puccini’s opera Saturday night, and the cast took a full house at Capitol Theatre on an emotional roller coaster ride through 19th-century Paris.
“La Boheme” opens with the poet Rodolfo and his painter friend Marcello, who are struggling to keep warm in their tiny apartment. Despite their bleak circumstances, the friends are full of life and energy as they take turns ripping and burning parts of Rodolfo’s manuscript to keep a fire blazing. Friends Colline and Schaunard soon join the pair, and the opening scene quickly evolves into a lighthearted, humorous display akin to college roommates playing around and procrastinating on their studies.
Right before the start of act one, it was announced that Michael Adams, who played Marcello, was diagnosed with bronchitis earlier in the week. Adams remained undeterred and delivered an impressive vocal performance in the opening scene of the act.
But before act two began, it was announced that although Adams would remain on stage acting the part of Marcello, it would be baritone John Allen Nelson providing vocals from the side of the stage. While it could at times be disorienting to have Marcello’s actions and voice come from different parts of the stage, both Adams and Nelson gracefully adjusted to this last-minute change, allowing the production to continue without a glitch.
When Marcello and friends go out for Christmas Eve celebrations, Rodolfo opts to stay behind so he can finish some work. While struggling to find inspiration, his next door neighbor Mimi pays him an unexpected visit.
It’s at this moment that Puccini’s sweeping, romantic music takes center stage, foreshadowing a romance between Rodolfo and Mimi. While there were English supertitles displayed on a big screen for those not familiar with the story to follow along, the music also did a wonderful job cuing significant events throughout the production.
Mimi, who enters coughing and fatigued, informs Rodolfo that her candle has blown out and that she has no matches to relight it. The poet comes to her aid and quickly starts to develop feelings for her. When Mimi turns to leave, she realizes she has lost her key — which Rodolfo finds and secretly tucks away in his pocket so he and Mimi can spend more time together.
The two get to know each other through two beautiful and moving arias. Rodolfo, played by tenor Scott Quinn, introduced his carefree, bohemian spirit in the aria “Che gelida manina” (“Your little hand is cold”). Mimi, performed by soprano Jennifer Black, introduced her sweet personality and simplistic lifestyle in "Mi chiamano Mimi" (“My name is Mimi”). Although their meeting is brief, it’s enough time for both characters to realize they’ve fallen in love — a realization powerfully conveyed through Quinn and Black’s passionate performances.
Another highlight of Utah Opera’s “La Boheme” included the vivacious and flirtatious Musetta — Marcello’s love interest — portrayed by Utah-born soprano Celena Shafer. Her playful personality and strong voice won the audience over, leading to some of the loudest applauses of the night.
As a newcomer to opera, it was confusing for me to determine who was singing when several of the cast members were on stage at the same time. It was also sometimes difficult to hear a single voice project over an ensemble of 60 musicians in the orchestra pit. Not that I would’ve understood what the performers were singng anyway since the opera is in Italian — thank you, supertitles.
The set design also helped tell the story, using dimmer lighting to reflect circumstances that only grow bleaker as Mimi’s chronic illness and a general state of poverty put her relationship with Rodolfo to the test. Despite Mimi and Rodolfo's continuous struggles, Black and Quinn created a palpable chemistry and a deep love between the pair, making the opera’s inevitable tragic ending even more distressing.
As I looked around once the curtain fell, I could see that I was not the only one brushing away tears.
"La Boheme" might have been my first opera, but I don't think it'll be my last.