Live Theater Reviews

Bad Bohemians: Poverty, Passion and Poor Health Abound in Opera Theatre’s La bohème (Review)

Posted: June 3, 2024 at 7:29 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 49th season continues with a sprightly yet sorrowful production of Puccini’s La bohème. An indispensable part of the opera canon, it was last performed by the company in 2016.

La bohème is based on a short story by Henri Murger, a poet and novelist known for his depictions of Parisian bohemians. While keeping both the spirit of the story and opera intact, the setting for this melancholy drama has been altered (a theme for OTSL this season) from Paris of the 1830s to the postwar 1950s, a time when the City of Lights was filled with social, cultural, and political changes that saw modernization and long-held traditions clash.

Just like their 19th century counterparts, the intellectuals of that time quickly discovered that Bohemia wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.  Caught in the middle of this cultural shift filled with poverty, passion, and poor health, Parisian bohemians lived a hardscrabble life.

If this all seems familiar it is because La bohème has been widely used throughout popular culture (i.e., the musical Rent) since it premiered. The opera’s themes of love, friendship, poverty, and loss remain timeless.

For this production stage director Michael Shell doesn’t reinvent the wheel. He relies on a sparse set and drab costumes to emphasize the plight of the story’s core characters. This allows the opera’s ensemble to shine. Musically, the minimalism allows the songs, and their orchestral underpinnings, to breathe on their own without distraction.

The plot focuses on a core group of artists, each down on their luck and desperate to get ahead. The poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard, and Colline, a philosopher, each struggle with creating art amid economic hardship.

Rodolfo’s life changes forever on a cold Christmas Eve when he meets a seamstress named Mimì after she knocks on his door. Lovestruck from the start, their passionate affair flourishes in winter’s chill. However, when winter gives way to spring, the harsh realities of their lives hang over their relationship. Facing insurmountable obstacles, the new season brings a sad end to Rodolfo and Mimi’s courtship.

Also in the throes of love is Marcello, who finds himself in an on-and-off relationship with the flirtatious Musetta, his former paramour. Filled with fire and fisticuffs, their tempestuous relationship is fueled equally by jealousy, paroxysm, and passion.

From here things get dark. As their friends get by, Rodolfo spirals into melancholy and Mimi begins to fall ill. By the end of act two Rodolfo goes from being swept away to having the carpet swept out from under him.

As the opera unfolds, the stage lighting dims, creating a dreary atmosphere for the tragic events occurring onstage. Thus, as La bohème rounds the bend for its final act, the passion has dwindled away physically and emotionally.  The ensuing death of love, both literally and figuratively, manifests itself, changing the lives of Marcello and Rodolfo forever.

Leading the talented ensemble is soprano Katerina Burton. Drop everything you are doing and go see her! Her performance is jaw-dropping! Stunning audiences with her voice, she brings a balance of ecstasy and pathos to the part of Mimi.

Equally captivating is Moisés Salazar, a talented tenor who shines and holds his own with Burton. This duality bestows audiences with a version of Rodolfo who wears his heart on his sleeve. On stage, Salazar’s presence grows more powerful as the production progresses.

Thomas Glass embodies comradery as Marcello. In addition to performing in wonderful scenes with Salazar, he provides some of the production’s lighter moments, showing his agility in creating both dramatic and comedic moments.

Joining Glass is Brittany Renee as Musetta. This gifted soprano has plenty of dynamism of her own. While her voice complements Burton’s, she also shines on her own during several duets. She is a talent on the rise.

Woeful but wonderful, OTSL’s La bohème is a poignant exploration of love, friendship, poverty, and the human condition. Filled with timeless arias and a dazzling score from members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the opera presents the trials and tribulations of postwar Parisian bohemia to life in a vibrant and emotive production.

La bohème runs through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. Productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis are in English with musical accompaniment from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. For more information on programming or the 2024 season, visit