Granted, an opera in which the heroine dies of a respiratory illness is maybe not the most festive choice Seattle Opera could have made to welcome audiences back to McCaw Hall after its 18-month COVID-19 hiatus from live performances there. Then again, perhaps a good cathartic sobfest, in the form of the most popular opera ever written, is just what the doctor ordered. Most likely, Puccini’s 1896 “La Bohème” had been slated to open the 2021-22 season years ago and Seattle Opera saw no need to reschedule it.
On Saturday, the opening night’s cast starred Yosep Kang and Karen Vuong as Rodolfo, a poet, and Mimì, a seamstress — he one of a group of four starving artist/roommates in a Parisian garret (in Seattle it’d be called a loft and rent for $2,500 a month minimum), she the young woman with tuberculosis he falls for, anguishes over and loses. Likable and believable, they share chemistry and expressivity. Neither one is big-voiced, though Vuong sings throughout with a prettily demure tight vibrato, which adds color and presence; they blend with, rather than soar over, the orchestra, conducted by Joseph Colaneri.
Familiar Seattle Opera faces John Moore and Ginger Costa-Jackson fierily portray their counterparts, the on-again, off-again Marcello (a painter) and Musetta (a singer). Costa-Jackson goes for a broadly comic and oddly shrewish Musetta, setting aside charm and seductiveness in a role that is set up to walk off with the show in her pocket and often does. Ashraf Sewallam and Eugene Villanueva vividly play the other two roommates, philosopher Colline and musician Schaunard (the musician is the only one of the four who makes any money, another clue that this is a fictional story), and Barry Johnson plays comic foils Benoit and Alcindoro.
David Gately’s stage direction manages smoothly and clearly the details of this business-heavy opera — though I do think it’s a miscalculation to allow Musetta and Marcello so much leeway to upstage Mimì and Rodolfo in the closing quartet of Act 3. The irony of pitting a bickering couple simultaneously against a reconciling one can be quite poignant, considering we know what’s coming in the final act, if the two pairs are deftly balanced.
Social-distancing considerations and budget realities conspired to keep the chorus in this production relatively small (the Act 2 cafe scene is picturesque, but don’t expect spectacle) and the orchestra unusually small (the severely reduced orchestration is by Bryan Higgins). In Puccini’s original, much of “Bohème” is lightly scored anyway, so little magic is lost — except that it makes a surprisingly big difference to hear the crushing brass chorale at the tragic climax played by only four instruments instead of the usual eight. (Here it just sounds like a car alarm, a decided mood-killer.)
So if it’s not an ideal “Bohème,” it’s an engaging and moving one, and an effective way for Seattle Opera to ease back into fully staged opera in front of a live audience. Affectingly romantic, it’s nevertheless not exactly escapism; the opera’s depiction of the ravages of poverty in a country without a comprehensive health-care system is as timely as tomorrow’s front page.