If you think you haven’t seen Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème before, you have. You’ve seen its direct adaptations as well as the the work it has inspired. This is one of the most influential shows of all time, and for good reason. The Washington National Opera has put on Puccini’s beloved opera about love and art in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, and it is not to be missed — it will delight lovers of Puccini, and lovers in general.
La bohème is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. It premiered in 1896 and was the basis for the musical Rent, which premiered exactly a century later in 1996. It also served as a key source of inspiration for both the film and stage musical Moulin Rouge! — and these are just some cases of direct rather than indirect inspiration. And it’s no wonder that the show has had this level of impact — its story is universally resonant. It’s hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t be personally affected somewhere along the line by a story about starving artists, the trials of love, rebellion against “the man,” and the necessity of hope in the face of loss and grief.
As a friend recently said when I mentioned I went to La bohème at the Kennedy Center and cried three times over the show’s duration, “If you went to Bohème and didn’t cry, something went wrong.” But it was the best kind of art-induced emotion — this story will engulf you. But don’t let that turn you off — this opera is not difficult to understand on a narrative level, both broadly and line-to-line. Those expecting a stuffy opera will also be surprised by the straightforwardness of the story and lyrics that have depth but are not complicated. As said, it’s easy to adapt.
The story of La bohème takes the viewer through the twists and turns of love amidst poverty, giving life to this cast of characters whose profound love can only be ended by (spoiler alert) death. Yes, Rodolfo and Mimì fall in love within minutes of meeting, but somehow the writing and performances are so good that you can truly believe their pairing is eternally divined. The performances of this profoundly talented cast illuminate the rawness of love’s joy and pain in life and death: under Peter Kazaras’ direction and through Ben Wright’s choreography, Gabriella Reyes as Mimì, Jacqueline Echols as Musetta, Kang Wang as Rodolfo, Gihoon Kim as Marcello, and Blake Denson as Schaunard bring their world of rich yet meager livelihoods as some of America’s highest vocal talent. Furthermore, the multicultural casting of the bohemians is ideally matched to the show’s messages about the beauty of artistic diversity and individual identity. Wang’s and Reyes’ heartwrenching acting will make you truly believe in this couple’s ability to triumph, despite the fact they, uh, don’t. That’s how good their performances are.
This new production of La bohème by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center is visually poignant, using physical sets as well as projections simultaneously to create remarkable depth and dimension on the stage. The sets, original designs by Lee Savage, are relatively simple, with elegant structures that center the characters. The original costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller are similar in their simplicity and lack of color. It makes sense that the sets are simple: as an opera, most would argue that the focus of the show is the performers’ vocal artistry and Puccini’s beloved music — lovingly conducted here by Alevtina Ioffe.
While so much about this production beautifully communicated Puccini’s opera, the understandable desire to paint a contrast between the meager lives of the bohemians and the world of material abundance they wish to inhabit backfired in the show’s set and costume design. Yes, the bohemians are poor, and have to burn their own artwork to keep warm, but visually, it is hard to believe that these individuals are artists if we don’t see evidence. If they are artists, where is their art? The space where they live is remarkably grey and stark, seemingly to emphasize their modest living conditions, which makes thematic sense in contrast to the vibrant Café Momus with its sparkling red lights. Their costumes are also primarily colored with blacks and browns, so it was hard to see these characters as artists when all they do to add art to their physical surroundings comes through their poetic speech. Being able to see the kind of art these artists are creating would have worked wonders for characterization.
Seeing La bohème is a crucial piece of cultural education, as well as a piece of art that you should see if only to make you fall in love with love once again. The Washington National Opera is made up of some of America’s finest artists who bring this piece of art about death to beautiful life. Whether you are a longtime fan or someone who has never seen an opera, you will love La bohéme, as millions have for the last century.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
La bohéme plays through May 27, 2023, produced by Washington National Opera performing in the Opera House at Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$259) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324. There are discounted options for students and young professionals through MyTix and BravO.
The program for La bohéme is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.