'La Boheme' gets a modern look

Mike Dunham
Photo by BOB HALLINEN for the Anchorage Opera

Anchorage Opera's current production of "La Boheme" marks as good an effort as we've seen from the company in some time. The sets are sharp and evocative. The orchestra, directed by Pablo Zinger, has seldom sounded better, and probably never sounded as articulate. The leading singers, clearly audible to the back of the balcony, hit their marks both musically and theatrically.

Director Marc Astafan's decision to set "Boheme" in post-World War II Paris was either inspired or immaterial. On one hand, sensible updating of opera classics can enhance their relevance to a contemporary audience. On the other hand, there didn't seem to be much difference between bohemianism in the Second Empire and liberated France. Poor young people fell in love, scrambled for food and heat, and sometimes died from respiratory ailments in both periods. With few exceptions -- shorter skirts, more revealing dresses -- the costumes might have been the same in either period.

But the on-stage look was dramatic and functional. The garret was a small set within the proscenium. At the end of Act I, it rolled away and the Cafe Momus street scene rolled into place with the curtain up over the course of about two minutes. The customs checkpoint of Act III was downplayed and instead designer Arnulfo Maldonado supplied a stark cityscape punctuated with alleys. The traditional falling snow was absent, but the intimacy of the reconciliation scene was preserved.

Applause ran long and loud on opening night, Saturday, and for good reason. The voices of the principals -- Veronica Mitina (Mimi) and John Ken Nuzzo (Rodolfo) -- were rich and suitably youthful. Rodolfo's buddies were animated cut-ups, Marcello (an energetic Barry Johnson), Colline (Won Cho; one wished the score let him sing his overcoat aria twice) and Schaunard (local bass Kyle Gantz). Other local talent included Kate Egan at her flirtiest as Musetta and John Fraser reprising the Benoit/Alcindoro roles.

The stage action in "Boheme" can be static; a bunch of slackers standing around talking. But Astafan's direction inserted small but telling gestures into familiar bits -- Roldolfo and Marcello sharing a blanket, Colline distracting Schaunard with a Three Stooges feint in their mock duel with bread. There was no sense of dragging in the 2 1/2 hour show. The lighting, by Lauren MacKenzie Miller provided dramatic emphasis at key moments.

The production as a whole is strongly convincing. Mitina, Nuzzo et al. give us characters we can believe in, and, with the assistance of the rest of the musical and stage crew, do it with musical aplomb.

The English surtitles must be good, too. I wasn't reading them, being pretty familiar with the plot, but heard a number of the crowd laughing out loud at the banter of the buddies. The script is something like Puccini's version of "How I Met Your Mother" -- except with an ending that leaves you in tears.

A tip for those sitting past the front-most rows, bring opera glasses or binoculars so you don't miss the performers' facial expressions.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.