"Puccini is stupid," wrote Ezra Pound. He's right, of course, but only in a certain regard. Puccini is stupid in the way that rock 'n' roll is stupid: It is purely visceral, a thing made of emotion as if emotion were an actual substance like sun-baked brick or crêpe de Chine. The action of La Bohème, opera's most performed work, is steaming melodrama, the music shamelessly overdetermined in its manipulations, and this is the entire point. If a boy meets a girl, we know, they'll fall in desperate love, and then she's going to have to die so we can feel all the more.
Well, the Portland Opera's new production of La Bohème under stage director Sandra Bernhard does not disappoint in this regard: Bernhard has a gift for filling the stage with a robust, overbrimming vitality, whether in Act II's ecstatic Dickensian street chorus or the refreshingly human (rather than affected or slapstick) gallows humor of bohemian poverty; the set design was likewise lushly attended. Still, Bernhard finds her poetry not in the grand tableaux but the small gestures—the grabbing of a hand that is quickly snatched away, or in an unscripted introduction.
Kelly Kaduce turns in a complex performance as the poor doomed seamstress Mimi. When she first meets starving poet Rodolfo (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), her declaration that "when spring comes, the sun's first rays are mine" is sung not coquettishly but rather with dark, death-haunted desperation—she is a full-voiced Mimi, tempered in latent tragedy. Chácon-Cruz, however, performs a true star turn as Rodolfo, singing with a lightness and intensity that in its charisma almost overwhelms Kaduce's more delicate performance—though the two nonetheless have a palpable chemistry. Michael Todd Simpson brings a lanky, full-chested physicality to the role of Marcello, opposite a roseate-toned Alyson Cambridge as the gold-hearted libertine Musetta.
If there's fault to be found with the production, it's that life is made almost too appealing and vital, the pace too brisk, the singers too brightly likable, and the production's momentum overshoots the eventual tragedy. Instead, impossibly lush life and song and love and spectacle stream swiftly past even Mimi's death and curtains and bows and into the darkness of the now-empty stage.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm. Thursday and Saturday, Oct. 1 and 3. $20-$135.