In a remote corner of the Café Momus, beyond the visual range of those who go to see and be seen, sits a distinguished bourgeois gentleman, who may be politely described as "late-middle-aged." In the midst of the raucous chaos in his midst, he is deeply absorbed in his reading. After more than half of the second act of this San Francisco Opera production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème has elapsed, a woman in equally distinguished bourgeois attire enters the Café and is almost immediately greeted by the maître d', as if he knows her embarrassment in the presence of the Café "regulars." She is escorted to the table of the gentleman, and we in the audience immediately recognize the intimacy of this situation. We are free to make up our own details: It does not matter if they have waited decades for this meeting or if this is the site of a regular assignation. Indeed, it does not even matter what we see them do, since their overt actions are deliberately restrained. However, stage director Harry Silverstein has clearly seen in them a way to set a context for passionate erotic attraction that is never addressed by Puccini's librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (and may have also been overlooked by the original source material by Henri Mürger).
Whether or not Silverstein was being deliberately subversive, his inclusion of this vignette highlights how little authenticity there is in the supposedly verité spirit of one of the most popular operas in the current repertoire. At the end of what has turned out to be an impressively cerebral opera season (using even the comedy of Gaetano Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore for a humane reflection on the placebo effect), La Bohème asks of us nothing other than a full and unquestioning suspension of disbelief. In return we are given an abundance of eye candy and a full measure of star turns, each of which demands that action be suspended while the audience erupts with approval. Taken on these merits, this production was as good a vehicle for introducing the new Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, as any. Luisotti's command of the score could move us from set piece to set piece without letting us dwell on dramatic details, such as crowd scenes that lack the sorts of spontaneous dynamics that Richard Wagner captured so well in Die Meistersinger or a historical context that became the basis for Karl Marx' The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850. We could enjoy the balanced coupling of Angela Gheorghiu's Mimi with Piotr Beczala's Rodolfo, even if we also wished that Quinn Kelsey's Marcello had been blessed with a Musetta with more voice control than Norah Amsellem could muster. Nevertheless, Silverstein's little mimed episode remains to remind us of the underlying humanity of that age that seemed to be as secondary in the priorities of Puccini and his librettists as it was to Louis Philippe's monarchy.