Although "La Boheme" is less a celebration of youth than an exploitation of its loss, Puccini's opera is a routine habitat for young singers. A cynic might argue that a little experience might not be such a bad thing for making that loss mean something onstage. But the "Boheme" bull market needs bodies, and young singers are plentiful, require exposure and, dare I say it, come cheap.
Obviously, economics weren't Los Angeles Opera's sole motivation for reviving its popular Herbert Ross production with two casts of newcomers, the first of which reported for duty Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Rituals require renewal, and "Boheme" shows no sign of losing its drawing power. Moreover, the opera's youthful spirit of Bohemian bonhomie cries out for populating Puccini's Latin Quarter with the real thing now and then, as director Baz Luhrmann did on Broadway a few years ago.
All the same, L.A. Opera's "Boheme" is new wine in an old bottle. Ross' 14-year-old production, which is now directed by Stanley M. Garner, has seen better days. Gerard Howland's appealing set looked aging and sounded arthritically creaking as it opened up for a cinematic wide-angle vista of fin de siecle Paris at the end of Act 1. The lighting in general seemed duller than I remembered it. Paris has lost its glow.
As an ensemble piece, "Boheme" is not an opera in which stars are normally born, and I doubt any will be during this run, no matter how fine some of the singers may be. Certainly Massimo Giordano and Maija Kovalevska as Rodolfo and Mimi, the starving poet and his lover, sang very well Sunday. He's a honey-toned Italian tenor full of ardor. She's a Latvian soprano who sounded strong and focused to her last consumptive breath.
Their gang included an Italian baritone, Luca Salsi, as the painter Marcello and Laquita Mitchell, an American soprano, as the flirt Musetta. His emotional range was limited, and she was not hotheaded. But Mitchell did bring a slightly smoldering dignity to Musetta that was rare. Brian Leerhuber, the musician Schaunard, seemed less in his element than he had been in Ricky Ian Gordon's "Grapes of Wrath" for Minnesota Opera last winter. Oren Gradus sentimentalized the philosopher Colline's farewell to his overcoat as Collines have done for a cen- tury.
Hartmut Haenchen, who conducted "Don Giovanni" the previous night, was again in the pit, and the orchestra played beautifully and elegantly for him. But the elegance didn't go anywhere. Sometimes he slowed dramatically without being in any way dramatic, just a whole lot slower than he had been a few seconds earlier. He seemed to leave the singers alone rather than guide them. They were allowed their excesses, in the Puccini tradition of romantic overkill.
Onstage, this new crew's camaraderie was meant to be the same as it had been for many other casts, with singers young and not so young, in this production. Still, the chorus, adults and children alike, deserved a hand for parading around the Cafe Momus on Christmas Eve as if it belonged there.
All in all, this "Boheme" provided plenty of evidence that opera lovers need not worry about a lack of fresh talent. A second cast, which comes aboard Dec. 8, seems likely to reinforce Sunday's impression. But youth doesn't automatically rejuvenate a Puccini war horse. For that, we need new ideas.
Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 1 p.m. Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 5 and 8; 1 p.m. Dec. 9; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 14; 1 p.m. Dec. 16
Price: $20 to $238
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com