Bohemians they may call themselves, but Rodolfo, Marcello, Mimi, Musetta and the rest of their Paris art-crowd gang spend a lot of time at the Music Center. They were just hanging out at the Ahmanson Theatre earlier this year in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of Puccini's opera. It's a place they knew well from a previous residency as "Rent"-ers.
And now they're back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Saturday night Los Angeles Opera remounted its popular production of "La Boheme" by the late film director Herbert Ross. Four years ago, the company found that the Bohemians proved good holiday company, and so here they are again.
The 11-year-old production, now directed by Stanley M. Garner, still works. And so, obviously, does Puccini's 108-year-old opera. So well, in fact, do they work that L.A. Opera can get away with a certain amount of coasting.
The cast this time around is of no particular interest. The opera is such common ground that singers by the hundreds are capable of finding their way around it, and these are a routine bunch of operatic Bohemians -- not unbelievable, just ordinary. At least Ana Maria Martinez's warm-toned Mimi was less shallow than the others. She had a robust vocal and theatrical center around which the others clustered, and she didn't play for cheap melodramatic pity in her death scene.
The one curious aspect of the evening was Lawrence Foster's conducting. It can be forgotten (as it was in Luhrmann's Broadway show) just how important the orchestra was to Puccini. The colors of Paris are the colors of the instruments, whether it is the orchestra sensually letting us feel the crackling of a fire on a cold night, the rising sexual passion of two just-met lovers, the bright lights of the teeming Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve or the leaving of life from Mimi's consumptive body.
Foster has conducted at L.A. Opera often and longer than anyone else. He was in the pit on opening night 18 years ago, and a big change since then has been the improvement of the orchestra. That seemed to interest him most. Though not exactly getting in the way of theater, he didn't encourage it, either. Rather, he conducted the opera more like a series of well-made symphonic set pieces, full of absorbing details.
The absorbing details on stage were those that Ross put there, the many realistic small touches that give the production texture but never interfere. The cheap loft looks like an uncomfortable cheap loft, and the little touches add up to a fuller portrait of the characters. We see Marcello paint a model, her bare back to the audience, in the last act; it's a small thing but surprisingly touching in this tawdry setting.
Gerard Howland's sets feel like turn-of-the century Paris (a reasonable updating from the original mid-18th century setting to Puccini's own time).
But beyond that, the four Bohemians were pretty typical. Marco Berti, an unsubtle and not effortless tenor, was the poet Rodolfo. Alfredo Daza was the quivering-voiced, moderately convivial painter Marcello.
Neither the musician Schaunard (Gregorio Gonzalez) nor the philosopher Colline (Stephen Morscheck) rose above standard issue. Shelley Jameson sang Musetta on point but displayed little flair. Perhaps hers was a sophisticated effort to counter too many overdone Musettas.
Or perhaps L.A. Opera is simply keeping the stage warm for the two stellar singers -- Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu -- who join the production next month with a new conductor and other cast changes.
Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, 8, 10, 14, 17, 19; 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 5, 11
Price: $25 to $190
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.losangelesopera.com