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Preview: Virginia Opera’s “La Boheme” Gets an Update in 1930s Paris 

click to enlarge Elaine Alvarez is Mimi and Jason Slayden plays Rodolfo in Virginia Opera’s “La Boheme.”

Elaine Alvarez is Mimi and Jason Slayden plays Rodolfo in Virginia Opera’s “La Boheme.”

Sitting at the opera at the age of 14, Elaine Alvarez knew she had found her calling: She would play Mimi in “La Boheme.”

“The ability that it had to capture what we go through in our lives was something I had never experienced before,” Alvarez says of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera. “It moved me to such a degree that [I decided] that was what I wanted to do with my voice.”

This weekend, Alvarez and the rest of Virginia Opera’s production of “La Boheme” will come to Richmond CenterStage, relating the story of four bohemian friends as they eke out a living in Paris. One of the most famous operas in history, “La Boheme” was the basis for the musical “Rent,” and plays out like an episode of “Friends” if Rachel suddenly acquired tuberculosis.

Through high jinks such as evading the landlord and sticking a schmuck with a pricey dinner check, the characters band together and explore true love.

“It’s people going through these changes of life and love and death, being broke and having no money,” says first-time director Kyle Lang. “[It’s] these experiences that create your character, and that’s certainly what these characters are going through.”

Traditionally set in 1830s, Lang has set his staging in 1939 Paris during the Phoney War. Hitler had just invaded Poland and the Battle of France would take place the following May. By the time France fell, four-fifths of Parisians had fled the city, making it difficult for those who remained to sustain themselves. “I was trying to find a time that was a little more accessible to a younger audience, but also nostalgic for older audiences,” Lang says of the time shift. “Early 19th century seems so far away, and it makes it seem so fictional when it’s that far back in time.”

Other than the time change, the production will be a fairly traditional take.

“It’s still period, it still feels very period, and the modernization doesn’t distort the story in any way,” says Alvarez, who is reprising the role of Mimi for her eighth time with this production. “She’s one of the most beloved characters in opera. She truly believes in the ideals of bohemian life, where art and literature and expression are the most important things, the truest goals of any life, and for her it’s to find true love.”

But story alone does not an opera make, and all involved laud Puccini’s richly melodic score.

“Puccini for me is such a tapestry, there are so many elements that are woven together,” Lang says. “As far as the music, it’s so clean and clear and beautifully orchestrated, but the story and libretto itself is so interwoven with the music, and dramaturgically it has such a clear line.”

Jake Gardner, who plays Benoit and Alcindoro in the show, agrees.

“This is music that you never, ever tire of,” says Gardner, who recently appeared in Virginia Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.” “It’s such an amazing, beautiful and economic piece. It’s a universal story that everyone has felt, a story of youngsters and love and loss and what that’s like, and the last scene is one of the magical moments of all time.”

Conductor Adam Turner says the audience will appreciate this production as a relatable, fresh take on the opera, and people will love Puccini’s score.

“[It’s] incredibly melodic, very romantic, and Puccini paints this landscape with the orchestra to support the singers, and it colors all of the scenes,” Turner says. “I think they’ll be swept away by the beauty and emotion of the music.” S

Virginia Opera’s “La Boheme” plays Nov. 20 and 22 at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St. vaopera.org.

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