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'La bohème' at Union Avenue Opera - preview shot

Jesse Donner as Rodolfo and Yulia Lysenko as Mimi in Giacomo Puccini's "La bohème" at Union Avenue Opera.

Photo by John Lamb

Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème” is indisputably one of the world’s most beloved operas, embraced by audiences everywhere. There’s good reason for its popularity: It’s an irresistibly tuneful mixture of romance, humor, spectacle and doomed love.

That’s why Union Avenue Opera is about to present its third production of “Bohème” in its 25 seasons, opening July 26.

“Even though we’ve done it twice before,” says UAO artistic director Scott Schoonover, “it still is at the top of the audience survey list every year.” According to the website, it was No. 4 on the list of the top 10 operas performed worldwide in the 2017-18 season.

Like its predecessors at Union Avenue, this will be a traditional production of the opera. As is the case with virtually every production at UAO, it will be sung in the original language (Italian, in this case), with English surtitles.

The director is Mark Freiman, who first encountered the score as a 9-year-old treble with New York’s Amato Opera and three years later sang the Act 2 solo child’s line in the first “Live From the Met” broadcast in 1977, with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo.

The conductor is Elizabeth Hastings, a New York-based conductor and vocal coach, and the only woman to have worked at UAO in that role.

The 1896 opera is based on the episodic novel “Scènes de la vie de bohème,” by Henri Murger (1822-1861). Murger based his stories on his own life as a starving young artist in Paris in the 1840s. The book was a hit, inspiring two operatic versions of “La bohème” (the other, rarely heard, is by Ruggero Leoncavallo), a zarzuela, a flock of films and the Broadway musical “Rent.” (It’s also a plot point in the 1987 movie “Moonstruck.”)

The term “bohemians” refers to those who live unconventional lives, often artists who were marked by poverty. Four bohemians — the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard and the philosopher Colline — share a garret in the Left Bank section of the Latin Quarter. One Christmas Eve, Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi meet-cute and immediately fall in love. He introduces her to his roommates and to Marcello’s on-and-off girlfriend, Musetta. Rodolfo and Mimi have their own ups and downs; in the end, dying, she returns to him.

UAO’s production stars tenor Jesse Donner, who sang the role of Ismaele in last season’s “Nabucco,” as Rodolfo, and Ukrainian soprano Yulia Lysenko as Mimi. As the frequently warring Musetta and Marcello, soprano Cree Carrico (who was a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s recent tribute to the Muny) is matched with baritone Andrew Wannigman (the malevolent Jigger Craigin in 2017’s “Carousel”).

“La bohème” is often described as the perfect first opera. Puccini was a consummate man of the theater, as well as a master of melody and orchestration, and there is not a wasted note or emotion in this relatively short score. There are intimate scenes and the complex interactions of the principals, chorus and supernumeraries — complete with a marching band — in the 19-minute second act. There’s a lot here to love.

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.