Rebellious creative young people hang out together, share dreams and miserable apartments. They make big plans. They fall in love. They suffer tragedies.
The 19th-century Parisiam mileau of Puccini’s “La Boheme” really varies little from scenarios of contemporary life. So why not, in re-imagining the beloved opera for slimmed down cabaret-style production staged in live music venue, an all-female cast playing gender identity-fuzzy characters?
The concept worked wonderfully in “La Femme Boheme,” the charmingly realized chamber-style interpretation launched by vocalist and producer Liz Cass and stage director Rebecca Herman this past weekend at the North Door — a commodious cabaret-ish venue more often host to bands.
Cass and Herman made obvious that with enough progressive vision, a cast of talented singers and the courage to try something different, a warhorse of an opera can have immediate and fresh potency. Then again perhaps because “La Boheme” is such a timeless warhorse that when stripped down to its musical and theatrical bones, it still shines.
But for portions that included a chorus, musically Puccini’s opera remained unchanged.
It’s just that instead of a lush orchestra, pianist Cynthia Wilson deftly handled all the accompaniment while director Chuck Dillard conducted while seated on a chair on the floor in front of the stage. Characters remained the same — but they were all sung the uniformly skillful cast of seven female singers costumed along the wide spectrum, some more feminine and some more masculine in their very hip, contemporary attire.
A few simple props, English supertitles projected on a nearby screen, an MC to cleverly ease the transitions between acts and a drink-fetching intermission time, and voilà — you have a delightful presentation of opera in a bar that was as engaging and as artistically solid as any other traditional opera production.
And as heartfelt too. Whittled of superfluous opera fancies, the expressive story of friendship and love that’s at the root of “La Boheme” emerged with real clarity and sincere emotion, due in no small part from Herman’s direction of the particularly engaged performers.
As Mimi, Julie Taylor sang with beautiful tone and expression, ditto Emily Breedlove as Rodolfo. With nice timbre and vivaciousness Cass made an engaging Marceloo.
Cass and Herman have said they plan to remount “La Femme Boheme” in the near future. And at least one other adventurous chamber opera group in Tennessee is already interested in renting the production.
Here’s to more chamber opera in alternate venues.