The thought of Pacific Opera Project performing one of its infamous makeovers on Giacomo Puccini’s beloved classic La Bohème sounds almost cruel, like leading an unsuspecting lamb to a ritual slaughter. The Italian composer’s tragic opera about love and death among a group of young Parisian artists is unabashedly sentimental but nonetheless a reliably compelling and poignantly heartbreaking tearjerker.
Pacific Opera Project, on the other hand, is well known for its sacrilegious reinterpretations of venerable operas — these are the same creative minds who reinvented Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio as an outlandish episode of Star Trek and relocated Franz Lehár’s courtly and cosmopolitan The Merry Widow to a Wild West saloon. The local company’s revival of its 2012 production of La Bohème at Highland Park Ebell Club rudely uproots Puccini’s characters (a poet, a seamstress, a painter, a singer) from 19th-century France and reimagines them as economically struggling hipsters (an idealistic screenplay writer, a cynical graphic designer, a self-absorbed indie-rock singer, etc.) transplanted to modern-day Highland Park.
There are plenty of Eastside allusions and topical jokes in POP artistic director Josh Shaw’s very loosely translated supertitles of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s original Italian libretto. (The vocalists sing in Italian.) When these brave new bohemians aren’t flocking to Highland Park bars such as Block Party and the York, they’re hanging out in their apartment, texting one another and tearing into a box of pastries from vegan emporium Donut Friend. In updating the production, Shaw has slipped in a few passing references to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, but these jokes tend to be more lighthearted than anything especially pointed or heavy, and they don’t slow down the show’s quick pace.
“The scent of tacos fills every corner,” rhapsodizes Schaunard (POP comic mainstay E. Scott Levin) in a passionate ode to the overlooked beauty of Figueroa Street. Later, Parpignol (William Grundler) breaks up the action when he pushes his little cart through the audience and hands out churros.
And yet, despite all the silly antics and gratuitous Highland Park name-dropping (which overlooks the neighborhood’s recent struggles with gentrification), the romantic essence of Illica and Giacosa’s original story still comes through, along with Puccini’s memorable melodies, which are broken down by pianist Parisa Zaeri (who is hidden behind a plastic screen for half the performance, muting some of the piano’s impact).
When unsuccessful screenwriter Rodolfo (tenor Dane Suarez) and freelance flower-maker Mimi (soprano Daria Somers) meet-cute in his apartment, they exchange nervous banter about their lives as they look for her missing keys (“It’s a pretty chill gig,” Mimi insists about working from home, before apologizing for being “an annoying neighbor”).
What really makes this playful fable come together is the duo’s singing. Suarez has a big, heroic voice with an appealing, suitably romantic tone. Somers embodies Mimi with a lovely vocal radiance that’s powered by an impressive force that ripples across the room in shimmering waves. When the two lovers engage in a duet at the end of Act I, they harmonize idyllically as they walk slowly into the crowd, through the lobby and out the front door of the building, accompanied only by Zaeri’s spare piano accents and the soft percussion of their own footsteps. All joking aside, it’s a transfixing moment of sublime beauty.
More campiness ensues when the characters fly back and forth between Lake Tahoe and Highland Park. The flirtatious indie-rock singer Musetta (portrayed by soprano Katherine Giaquinto, vamping it up in costume designer Maggie Green’s shiny sequined dress and black thigh-high boots) feints and parries with her long-suffering beau, graphic designer Marcello (stirring, resolute baritone Alex DeSocio).
But all the merriment subsides once these friends realize that Mimi is dying. Instead of being distractions, all the goofing around and wordplay earlier in the opera works to deepen and humanize these seemingly vapid hipster caricatures, which makes Mimi’s death all the more affecting. As Colline, bass-baritone Keith Colclough intones his farewell to Mimi with a mournfully resounding tone as he pauses outside Rodolfo’s apartment.
The cast use every inch of the Ebell Club, with the strong male chorus standing in the back of the room at times, while other characters make energetic sorties into the crowd. One can literally feel the force of the singers, whether they are dashing among the tables and shaking the wooden floor or belting out vocals from across the intimate room with an almost palpable impact.
Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park; Thu.-Sat., Dec. 14-16, 8 p.m.; $20-$140. (323) 739-6122, pacificoperaproject.com.