MUSIC | A dark but moving “La Bohème” at the Minnesota Opera


There’s no denying La Bohème is one of the world’s most famous operas. Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera is staged frequently across the globe and was the inspiration for the Tony-winning musical Rent, which ran for more than 12 years on Broadway and was just staged in an acclaimed Minneapolis production. One could argue it’s the love story at the center of the piece that’s contributed the most to the opera’s lasting resonance. And on that level, if not on all levels, the current Minnesota Opera production delivers.

Due to the rigorous vocal demands of the score, the Opera is using two sets of rotating casts to tell the story of poor artists in 19th century France. At Sunday’s matinée Adam Diegel as the poet Rodolfo and Jennifer Black as the seamstress Mimi were in fine form. Both are able to capture a subtle innocence that make their immediate attraction and instant proclamation of love as believable as can be expected. Tenor Diegel exquisitely controls tender moments, but also displays a powerful voice in moments of passion. As the doomed Mimi, Black is equally emotive and vocally strong with her soprano voice.

la bohème, playing through march 14 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($20-$200) and information, see

And while Rodolfo and Mimi are the opera’s core couple, there’s an equally intriguing relationship between fellow artists Marcello and Musetta. This pairing brings needed humor to the piece and is done great justice by performers Peter Barrett and Naomi Isabel Ruiz, respectively. Bartett’s baritone is wonderfully soothing and loud, and he has a flawless aptitude for physical comedy. Ruiz’s Musetta is a careful balance between annoying flirt and caring confidante.

Stage director Justin Way successfully captures moments of humor between friends Rodolfo and Marcello, as well as between on-again, off-again lovers Marcello and Musetta. He also keeps the pace light and the action moving during scenes that have the potential to be stale. Unfortunately, that action is often juxtaposed against Robert Brill’s sets (the current production is a remounting of the Minnesota Opera’s 1996 production). Those sets are dark and feature looming buildings, which help foreshadow the coming tragedy but do little to highlight the spontaneous and flirty nature of the characters. Instead, they imprison the actors within drab settings as if to further torture them for their lack of fortune.

I was particularly disappointed with the design after having seeing Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 staging in New York. Whereas Brill’s sets portray a gloom-and-doom atmosphere, Luhrmann’s production celebrated Rodolfo and Mimi’s romance and the Parisian culture by using a brighter design and moving the action to the 1950s. As opera increasingly becomes thought of as being for an older generation, engaging designs like that in the production I saw in New York can help make opera more accessible to new generations, while adding to and not distracting from the drama.

As I walked into the Ordway’s lobby on Sunday I hoped to be as enthralled with this production as I was the first time I saw La Bohème. And though I missed the modernized take, I found the Minnesota Opera’s production to be moving. Strong performances combined with Puccini’s score continue to make this tragic love story undeniably attractive.