For those paying attention, Ivany's libretto only updates details, the kind that are in place to connect character with audience. If we were to strip away the hipster scarves and references to manscaping and BMV, we're still left with the original personalities from the libretto by Illica and Giacosa.
Frida and Diego encounter many struggles, the communist revolution turning against Diego, the pair travelling to New York, their struggle to carry a pregnancy to full term, and their return to Mexico, which led to Diego’s many affairs.
While in the first act, the singers interacted awkwardly, with little to no dramatic commitment to their movements or singing, in the final moments of the show, the principals all rose to the occasion, singing and acting with dramatic impetus that temporarily stopped time.
In Puccini's anodyne libretto however, des Grieux and Manon become unwitting martyrs. Des Grieux's self-pity is sublimated into hopeless romanticism too pure for a cruel world. Manon, mercurial and unparsable in the novella, is given a clearly defined voice and a straight-forward moral compass.
In general, tempos throughout the performance were sluggish, particularly in the first act. The love duet plodded along and the Te Deum was agonizingly slow, as was Mario's third act aria "e lucevan le stelle."
With all these different uses of the one dramatic tool, the creative team certainly believed in the effectiveness of the medium. I think it could have been trimmed a bit, because it distracted from the artists on stage.
Ivany told me that there are always audience members at these performances for whom opera is a new experience, and I think bringing opera to new audiences in this manner is a fantastic idea.
At the same time, the limited set design accentuates the quality of the music to tell the story of La bohème, from the virtuosic one-man orchestra in pianist David Eliakis, to the cast. And in a smaller space, the story becomes even more intimate and heart-wrenching.
While his vocal brilliance was not at all a surprise, Lawrence Brownlee's spirited stage antics were a consistent delight throughout the evening. Known for virtuosically ornamenting the already-florid lines of his bel canto repertoire, Brownlee seemed to be playing it safe on Saturday night, despite sounding in fantastic voice.
This, combined with a note-complete love duet, was enough for the production to justify the bells and whistles of its carnival pre-show, and I found myself not wanting for Pagliacci's much-beloved double-bill partner Cavalleria rusticana.