Did it ever occur to film and theater director Herbert Ross that his 1993 production of Puccini's "La Bohème" for Los Angeles Opera — his first of an opera for anyone — would endure so far into the 21st century? So it has, surviving the passing of Ross in 2001, as well as that of costume designer Peter J. Hall in 2010.
Last produced here in 2012, this warm, nostalgic evocation of Paris in Puccini's time is on its seventh pass through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A few details in the production, directed this year by UCLA director of opera Peter Kazaras, have changed over the years, if memory serves. Musetta once arrived on the scene in a fancy red car (not anymore). Schaunard and Colline now fight their mock duel in Act IV with long baguettes while riding on bicycles.
The Gerard Howland sets are inevitably showing their age, grubbier in appearance than I recall from past performances, and the Act II Cafe Momus scene doesn't deliver the shock of recognition that I received in 1993, when I felt as though I were back in Paris' Latin Quarter. But a few magic moments — like the unveiling of the Paris rooftops at night at the end of Act I, or the emerging shape of the under-construction Eiffel Tower — still captivate. And the Ross "Bohème" will probably always draw a crowd; the house looked nearly full on opening night Saturday.
Amid the flurry of new operas recently, including the avant-garde Louis Andriessen spectacle across the street at Walt Disney Concert Hall last week, "Bohème" serves as a kind of comfort food. But what's intended as comfort too often can slip into routine, and that, alas, is what this "Bohème" felt like.
Yes, "La Bohème" is at its core an intimate ensemble opera whose collection of starving artists and their mates and friends is well suited for a cast of young singers on the rise. But it's easy to get spoiled when you know what is possible. When two opulent-voiced stars, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, took over the roles of Rodolfo and Mimi midway through the fourth run of the Ross "Bohème" in 2004, the level of the whole performance rose dramatically over that of the opening-night cast. For once, the back-to-back Act I hit arias made an electrifying impact.
For whatever reason, that didn't happen Saturday night. The Rodolfo du jour, tenor Mario Chang, sang "Che gelida manina" simply, modestly, no more. Soprano Nino Machaidze's Mimi carried better over the orchestra, but her "Mi chiamano Mimi" sounded leaden in pacing, and her voice acquired a slightly edgy timbre later in the performance.
Soprano Janai Brugger portrayed Musetta as a vamping, campy near parody of Carmen in Act II when it came time for "Musetta's Waltz," while managing to preserve the character's dignity and compassion in Act IV. Baritone Giorgio Caoduro was an adequate Marcello, same with baritone Kihun Yoon's Schaunard, while bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee made a somewhat more impressive showing as Colline, singing a pensive farewell to his coat in Act IV.
Speranza Scappucci, a young, rising Italian conductor, produced lush, conventionally paced support in the pit, but that support often overwhelmed the vocal resources of her cast when the orchestra rose above a mezzo-forte volume level. As in previous years, all of the singers were at a particular disadvantage when cooped up in the boxy, walk-up garret in Act I, faring somewhat better when on the stage floor, and especially better when Rodolfo and Marcello sang their wistful opening duet in Act IV in front of a scrim. A loud brass band and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus made their usual appearances on the overcrowded Act II stage.
As often happens with "Bohème" at L.A. Opera, cast changes will come. Abdellah Lasri sings Rodolfo Thursday and May 22, 25 and 28; Olga Busuioc is Mimi on Thursday and May 25, and Amanda Woodbury takes on Musetta on Thursday and May 22 and 25. Most auspiciously, Gustavo Dudamel parachutes into the production toward the end of its run, directing the same cast that we heard on opening night. Will his charisma and musical instincts be able to shake up and transform the performance? As in the case of Alagna and Gheorghiu, it's happened before.
Los Angeles Opera's "La Bohème," Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 25, May 28, June 10; 2 p.m. May 22, June 5 and 12. $24-$374. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.org