Musica Viva’s “La Bohème”, Hong Kong

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Musetta) at the Café Momus Ginger Costa-Jackson (Musetta) at the Café Momus

Musica Viva’s current production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is a vivid justification for Hong Kong’s support of two opera companies. Different strategies yield different outcomes, to the great advantage of Hong Kong’s cultural scene. Musica Viva’s use of, in general, younger singers (“young” in opera being a relative term) and Director-General Kingman Lo’s focus on ensemble singing, lead to performances that are accessible and immediate. (Sometimes government arts policy works.)

This Bohème, with a sparky cast with evident mutual chemistry, was a delight—if something with a storyline ultimately this heart-wrenching can be a delight—similar to the way the much-loved and much-missed New York City Opera of old could be a delight.

Stefania Dovhan’s Mimì looked as though she had herself stepped out of a painting.

Stefania Dovhan and James Valenti
Stefania Dovhan and James Valenti

The tale of a quartet of impoverished artists—the poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, musician Schaunard and philosopher Colline—living in an impoverished Parisian garret, and the two intertwined love stories—the stricken embroideress Mimì and the flirty, headstrong girl-about-town Musetta for Marcello—is one of opera’s most performed; it can be difficult to keep it fresh. This is sometimes done by updating the action and transforming the bohemians to, say, 1960s hippies, a solution eschewed by this locally-designed production which is about as traditional it could be. The garret is angular and decidedly (and no doubt accurately) grubby in stark contrast to the colorful and bustling Quartier Latin set of the act’s second scene, a tableau that bore more than a passing reference to Renoir’s Moulin de Galette featured on the production’s posters.

Stefania Dovhan’s Mimì looked as though she had herself stepped out of a painting. Dovhan can communicate volumes even when she is not singing: in aspect and gesture, one could hardly have asked for a more believable—and appealing—Mimì. But this Bohème was unusual in that it served as a star vehicle for Ginger Costa-Jackson, a mezzo-soprano atypically cast as Musetta. I can never remember seeing anyone performing on stage with such evident, and infectious, joie-de-vivre. Poor Marcello didn’t stand a chance. Neither did anyone else or stage nor, indeed, the audience. An over-the-top performance whose purpose became clear in the last Act, when Musetta’s dedication to Mimì and desperation at her condition is all the more devastating in light of what had come before.

Friends in need, as they say. Marcello, that other friend, is one of opera’s most appealing characters. But Yonashiro Kei’s Marcello was made of stronger stuff than is sometimes the case: when he calls Rodolfo out for insincerity in the second Act duet, he seemed to be channeling Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo. This is of course why one can go to the same opera many times: Puccini’s operas allow almost endless interpretation. This was a Bohème in which no character plays second fiddle to any other.

Yunashiro Kei, James Valenti, Stefania Dovhan, Ricardo Rivera, and Valerian Ruminski
Yunashiro Kei, James Valenti, Stefania Dovhan, Ricardo Rivera, and Valerian Ruminski

In an ensemble performance, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so commenting on a single vocal performance can to some extent miss the point. Dovhan is a particularly communicative singer, evidently sensitive to the fact that opera is theatre as well as music. By the end of the evening, we feel we know Mimì almost as well as Rodolfo does. Kei has a flexible and sonorous baritone. Ricardo Rivera, returning to Hong Kong after singing Escamillo in last year’s Carmen, and Valerian Ruminski made Schaunard and Colline respectively into considerably more than mere foils for the four protagonists. The experience of the evening’s Rodolfo, James Valenti, a relative veteran, was evident in the elegance of some of the lines and thoughtful singing in duets.


La Bohème continues tonight and Sunday, 10 December.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He translates surtitles and writes program notes for Hong Kong opera productions, including this one.