Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl try to work things out but girl dies: this is the wrenching emotional arc at the center of Puccini’s “La bohème,” easily one of the world’s most popular and frequently staged operas. But in Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of “Bohème,” a co-production with Detroit Opera and Spoleto Festival USA, director Yuval Sharon gives the tragedy a twist in the most literal sense; the acts are performed in reverse order. The evening opens with the harrowing final act, which ends in the brief reunion of lovers Rodolfo and Mimì before Mimì dies from tuberculosis. It ends with the same pair’s serendipitous first meeting, and the curtain comes down with the word “love” drifting through the Parisian night.
If you’re skeptical, you had the same initial reaction I did. It’s a cheap gimmick, I thought initially: They want to do “Bohème” but they want to make it feel new, so Sharon is playing it experimental just because he can. I may have rolled my eyes while reading the Spoleto website’s page for the production: “What if life didn’t end in death, but a return to love?”
But after spending Friday evening at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, I am a naysayer no more. As John Conklin’s minimal circular set rotated between acts to literally turn back the clock, a fragment of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” resounded through my head: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time.” Long story short: the backwards “Bohème” is actually very good.
Even before the unconventional approach proved itself, the cast immediately made a stellar showing. BLO newcomer Edward Parks showed up with a rowdy, charismatic Marcello, well matched with Chelsea Basler’s loose-cannon Musetta. As Rodolfo, Jesus Garcia’s high range was somewhat threadbare, but he inhabited the character with such a robust spectrum of emotion that it was impossible not to fall in love with Mimì — a truly luminous Lauren Michelle, no notes — along with him.
William Guanbo Su and Benjamin Taylor’s Colline and Schaunard refused to fade into the background as so many Collines and Schaunards do outside of the brief moments in the spotlight the libretto allots them. There was a warm, well-worn affection between them that made me wonder if they were boyfriend and boyfriend, and a change to one of Schaunard’s lines (usually he charms a serving maid; the surtitles on Friday indicated it was a butler) cemented that in my mind. I was disappointed that the scene in which the bohemian boys trick their hapless landlord out of rent was omitted. I wanted to spend more time with that convivial quartet.
Far more things worked than not in Sharon’s approach, but there were a few troublesome spots. The set creaked loudly every time it rotated, which added unwelcome noise to several scenes which were otherwise enhanced by the movement. The white-suited Wanderer, a speaking character added for this production and played here by Opera unMet’s Marshall Hughes, was clearly intended to be an omniscient narrator a la the Stage Manager in “Our Town” or Hermes in “Hadestown,” but several times he interrupted the singing to muse (in English) “Now what would have happened if…” a character had made a different decision? The music, and the excellent cast’s portrayals of the characters, already invited the audience to wonder that on their own, so that didactic commentary was initially confusing and tiresome by the end.
However, those were small missteps in what was overall an engrossing perspective shift for the warhorse opera, one that cast new light on many of its calling cards. When I see “Bohème” knowing that Mimì will die at the end, I brace myself as soon as she enters the garret with her extinguished candle: at BLO, knowing that Mimì had already died, everything else that played out was suffused with a bittersweet atmosphere. When Rodolfo cradled a hitherto-unseen pink bonnet in Friday’s Act 1, which is usually Act 4, it was immediately obvious that it was significant, unlike its first appearance in the standard version. When a dying Mimì assured Marcello with some of her last words that Musetta is a good person, it didn’t feel like a last-minute shoehorned moment of redemption, but a question that would be duly answered. And when Mimì briefly hesitated to follow Rodolfo to Cafe Momus as the Wanderer loomed ominously in the background, it no longer foreshadowed inevitable tragedy, but rebuked it in the name of living life while it can yet be lived.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was the way it was originally written,” said my concert buddy, an operatic newcomer, as we left the theater.
So do not cease from exploration: see this “Bohème,” and know the place for the first time.
At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through Oct. 2. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org