Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Danielle de Niese and Zachary Nelson. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
By Sheri Flanders
A 2017 New York Times article titled “Metropolitan Opera Attendance: Slightly Better, Still Bad” speaks to the state of the Opera industry as a whole. Outside of its moneyed, die-hard fans, its reputation for being musty, snooty, and inaccessible persists. Tickets are expensive; the old guard gives a frosty reception to newcomers who run afoul of the strict and numerous rules; the artistic content is often – shall we say – less than timely. Even though many opera companies across the country have made strides in attracting younger audiences, most still must slavishly regurgitate the classics year after year to ensure that the donations from its aging, wealthy patrons, and not ticket sales, help keep the books in the black.
Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the second largest opera house in North America, is no exception to this rule as recent news announcing labor cuts and a strike suggests. There is no pressing reason to stage LA BOHÈME in this day and age, other than the fact that its enduring popularity makes it an audience draw guaranteed to raise ticket sales. This lack of artistic intention is unfortunately reflected in staging choices by director Richard Jones.
In the era of #MeToo, one might generously assume that it could not possibly be conscious intention to awkwardly play scenes of domestic violence for laughs; and instead, a side effect borne from jaded eyes. Actively acknowledging the honest dramatic weight of these moments, leveraging them against the sweet nothings of love with purpose, might have earned a deeper investment in the characters and spawned critical conversation. The lack of attention to the already thin story of a ragged band of self-absorbed Parisian artists and their love lives leads to several tonally inconsistent and painfully cringe-worthy moments in an otherwise pleasant affair.
Of course, no one really attends Opera for the story, and the stars of the show are the vocalists, who deliver spectacularly. Maria Agresta is absolutely stunning as Mimi, the simple flower embroiderer. Her voice becomes pure poetry as she professes her love for Rodolfo, the perfect complement for Puccini’s masterful score. Michael Fabiano is equally impressive and charming as her smitten lover Rodolfo, and their harmonies weaving through the rafters together around the loveliest phrases are truly exquisite indeed.
Every single member of the cast is unimpeachably amazing without exception, yet Danielle De Niese threatens to steal the show both in voice and in spirit as the fiery and uncontainable Musetta, and her rich soprano voice is a gift from the heavens. After her over-the-top extraordinarily entertaining restaurant scene – the only portion to earn real laughs instead of polite chuckles, the energy of the show plummets precipitously, settling into a comparatively muted second half. Without emotional investment or engaging theatrics, one is left with what amounts to a very nice concert.
Set and Costume Designer Stewart Laing does exquisite work with key elements of the setting. Anyone who has ever strolled through Paris in the winter will be overcome with nostalgia for the sheer craftsmanship and detail in the construction of the shopping arcades. To counteract this opulence, Laing creates a stark and simple artist’s hovel whose intention is to telegraph the image of poverty, yet never truly captures the gritty spirit of “La Vie Bohème” but instead smacks of a gentrified million-dollar refurbished loft with reclaimed wood beams.
For a piece centered around painters, there is oddly not a single attempt at a depiction of visual art, other than a sad comedic bit involving crude line drawings that does not go well. The stark white walls of the manger-like apartment offer a missed opportunity for criminally underused Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin to go wild with an impressionistic rendition of the painter’s talents, reflecting and balancing the over-the-top decadence of the other set pieces, giving visual voice to song.
Several inexplicably clunky and long set changes abruptly distract from the piece. Is this a convention of opera? Is it a firm rule that one cannot drop a scrim nor the orchestra vamp? Could one not set loose the dozens of delightful members of the Chicago Children’s Choir one minute earlier to cover the tragically painful set movement? These questions surely ran through my mind during those completely unnecessarily silent moments of eternity.
While veteran fans of opera will certainly adore this rendition, and many pedantic think-pieces looking down their noses from on high will regurgitate the history, context, and relevance of this production, this version of LA BOHÈME is not likely to bring new audiences through the doors in droves unless the tickets are free. The Lyric’s version of LA BOHÈME is not unlike its manchild protagonists in that it remains inaccessible; presenting a compelling pantomime of love without truly filling the heart.