by Ann M. Colford

Boy meets girl amid urban squalor. They hang out with a bunch of proto-Goth starving-artist friends. Girl gets sick. They break up. Girl dies. Boy cries. The end.

Sound familiar? If you think you've heard this story before, you're right. It's the plot for the Broadway hit Rent and the 2001 film, Moulin Rouge, where Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor play the tragic lovers. But like most good stories, knowing how it ends takes nothing away from the telling and the retelling.

Long before either of these incarnations, Henry Murger wrote a story in 1849 called La Vie de Boheme, set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s. Nearly 50 years later, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, inspired by the stories of Murger, created his opera, La Boheme. Now Spokane Opera is bringing Murger's Paris to life with a local production of Puccini's classic at the new Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center at Central Valley High School.

Kidman and McGregor might be prettier in Moulin Rouge - and the film does have that wild soundtrack - but no one can top Puccini for melodies that pluck at the heartstrings. Even if you're not an opera buff, the tunes will have you nodding in recognition. La Boheme is one of the most frequently performed operas, and in this case familiarity breeds comfort for both the artists and the audience.

"You just can't go wrong with Boheme," says Max Mendez, who sings the role of Schaunard. "If an adult has never seen an opera before, this is the one to see. Opera isn't cheap, but what you get as an audience member is so much more depth than you get from a movie screen. And it's live, right in front of you."

The opera follows a group of young artists living in a tiny Paris apartment during the 1830s. Rodolfo, a poet, and his painter friend, Marcello, struggle to stay warm in the freezing garret. Discouraged with his writing, Rodolfo offers the pages of his latest work as fuel for the stove. Their friend, Colline, a philosopher, joins them to commiserate until the arrival of the musician Schaunard, who has landed a job and arrives with food and funds. As the buddies hit the streets to blow their wad, Rodolfo bumps into their neighbor, Mimi, a frail young woman with a nasty cough who ekes out a meager living embroidering flowers. Love blossoms immediately, of course, in typically romantic 19th-century fashion, despite the hovering of tragedy in the wings. The lovebirds wander off to find their fun-loving friends in the nearby cafe. Along the way, they meet Marcello's former girlfriend, the flirtatious Musetta - a role that could have been played easily by Madonna in her Material Girl persona - along with the rent-demanding landlord and Musetta's elderly but wealthy suitor. Through it all, the artists flaunt convention while following their creative dreams.

As Schaunard, Mendez plays the guy who lifts everyone's spirits and gets the party rolling. "Amid all the tragedy, [Schaunard] is the one who has the most naive sense of life," he says. "He's the one who's always looking to have fun."

Soprano Kerri Marcinko is the tragic heroine, Mimi, and the romantic poet Rodolfo will be sung by tenor Scott Ramsay, who recently sang the same role with the Jacksonville Symphony under the direction of Fabio Mechetti.

"It's a good cast, solid all the way around," says Mendez of his colleagues. "As a local singer, it's exciting to see someone come in to town who I think is on the verge of big things. Scott has done a lot of work with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. And Kerri is an incredible singer. The sound just spins out of her - I know it's a clich & Egrave;, but it's like silk. You know she's working hard but she doesn't show it."

As the saucy Musetta, Leslie Mauldin comes to Spokane from her home in Boise, where she recently started an opera company called Opera Etc. Baritone Randel Wagner, director of choral and vocal activities at EWU, sings the role of Marcello, the painter, and bass-baritone Joseph Rawley, who has completed the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, brings a youthful vitality to Colline, the philosopher who bids a touching farewell to his favorite coat in the final act. Two other familiar local faces, William Rhodes and Michael Muzatko, round out the cast, and the orchestra will be under the direction of Joseph Mechavich.

"Joe is an incredible conductor and musician, and just an all-round nice person," Mendez says. "And he's as talented as they come. He'll really make the production sparkle with the way he works with the singers and the musicians."

So, although you know how the story turns out, that doesn't matter - bohemians always know how to have a good time, even in the face of tragedy. Mendez has sung the role of Schaunard before, and he always finds something fresh in the story.

"For me, Boheme is one of those operas I never get tired of seeing and I never tire of singing in it," he says. "It's what opera should be."

Publication date: 05/05/05

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Fri., June 25, 1-9 p.m. and Sat., June 26, 12-9 p.m.
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