There are moments throughout West Bay Opera's inspired interpretation of Giacomo Puccini's "La bohème" when audience members can be forgiven for forgetting that they're watching a work that premiered more than 112 years ago.
As WBO's General Director and Conductor José Luis Moscovich pointed out in his introductory remarks last Sunday afternoon, the classic opera's main themes of homelessness, health care and income inequality are as relevant as today's headlines, tweets and Facebook posts. And by transporting the setting from Paris in 1830 to the present day some 35 miles northwest of the Lucie Stern Theatre, in San Francisco, the visual aspects of WBO's production (with stage direction by Igor Vieira, set and lighting by Michael Palumbo, costumes by Abra Berman and projection design by Frederic Boulay) resemble a television miniseries one might binge rather than a traditional opera.
When the curtain is drawn on Act I, the setting is not a studio in the City of Light's Latin Quarter but rather an apartment in the Castro. A familiar image of Sutro Tower on Twin Peaks is projected on the dwelling's oversized window. Struggling visual artist Marcello (portrayed with great depth by Jason Duika, making his WBO debut) is using a can of spray paint, and not a brush and palette, while wearing an oversized plaid shirt with a hoodie underneath.
There's instant chemistry and camaraderie between Duika and Nathan Granner, who is a pathos-filled Rodolfo. Portraying the poet and main male love interest, he's also making his WBO debut, as are Julie Adams (Mimi, the illustrator and main female love interest), Brandon Bell (the philosopher Colline) and Karl Kaminsky (both Benoit the lusty landlord and Alcindoro the sugar daddy). The male starving artists in Act 1, including Kiril Havezov as Schaunard the musician, bring an authentic sense of brotherhood and have voices that blend well together while maintaining distinct individuality.
"La bohème's" success can rest largely on how Mimi is portrayed, and Adams infuses the role with both a bright light and ultimately a well-earned sense of tragedy around which the other characters can orbit. Her duets in Act 1 with Granner as their characters' love quickly evolves and with Duika in Act 3 as she confesses and sorts out her feelings convey different emotions and are equally compelling.
There was a long pause, but not an actual intermission, between Acts 1 and 2, long enough that a couple of patrons stood up to stretch their legs. But the wait was well worth it, as the extensive set change for Act 2 set up a bustling North Beach complete with familiar neon signs and the story's Café Momus placed at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway.
Set on Christmas Eve 2018, it's a bustling scene populated by street vendors, restaurant diners and children. The diversity of ages and faces ensured that it better reflected today's San Francisco, and members of the chorus and Silicon Valley Boychoir and others were involved in their own stories in the background like in a Robert Altman film. It was dizzying at times to read the supertitles, which are above the left and right sides of the stage at what seemed like a 45-degree angle; follow the action of the main characters to the left and right (including Maya Kherani's dynamic Musetta, who's introduced in this act); and also peek into the lives of the others.
There are details throughout Act 2 that authentically reflect the contemporary setting: One woman has dyed pink hair, and a homeless character who returns in Act 3 is wearing a pink Women's March pussy hat. When Musetta makes a scene in front of both lover Alcindoro and past flame Marcello, it's a viral video moment in the making that's captured by a sea of smartphones.
Technology is further acknowledged as Carmelo Tringali's Parpignol, the toy vendor, now sells electronic "gadgets" with screens that particularly attract the Silicon Valley Boychoir members, naturally. The first half's climax ends in a parade that is switched from a military to a San Francisco Giants Giants one. (It's so modern that the two jerseys worn are of current players: pitching staff ace Madison Bumgarner and starting third baseman Evan Longoria.)
"La bohème's" other themes are brought to the forefront in the second half. Act 3 is set in Civic Center Plaza with the projection showing the illuminated back steps of City Hall. The homeless characters are familiar to anyone who has visited the City by the Bay in the past dozen years. Mimi's illness, first introduced in Act 1, has worsened two months later. And as essentially an independent contractor in today's terms, she has no way of addressing it.
Act 4 returns to the apartment and brings all the artists from Act 1 plus Mimi and Musetta together for a tragic conclusion.
As was debuted in May 2017 with WBO's take on Strauss' "Salome," the orchestra is divided into three parts. The strings and harp are in the pit with Moscovich, while the woodwinds, brass and percussion are situated in the left and right wings of the stage. This gives a natural sense of stereo and also allows for a larger instrumentation for the space.
This version of "La bohème" emphasizes the sense of community in the story. In the talk back after Sunday's performance, cast members revealed how close they became. And that could be both felt and heard in this production, which has two more performances this weekend. Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: West Bay Opera presents Puccini's "La bohème."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Saturday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to WBO or call 650-424-9999.