The Cleveland Opera 2016-17 Review – La Bohème: Supporting Cast Puts Up Strong Showing As Leads Struggle

(Credit: Dorota Sobieska Website) Dorota Sobieska starred as Mimì.

Cleveland is tough on her Mimì’s. Just over a year ago, Cleveland Opera Theater brought the Puccini warhorse “La Bohème” to the Masonic Auditorium of Cleveland, with founder and Executive Director Andrea Anelli as the tragic heroine; a month later, she arrived at an impasse with her Board of Directors and was out. One wonders whether Dorota Sobieska, who for almost 20 years has been the driving force behind the Opera Circle of Cleveland and now, The Cleveland Opera, received a similar signal from the audience Saturday night when her company brought “Bohème” to Playhouse Square. What other message could one take when an audience full of friends, fans, and well-wishers remain disconcertingly silent at the conclusion of not only “Mi chiamano Mimi” but “Donde lieta usci” as well?

Doing It All

Before the curtain rose, my impression was that Ms. Sobieska, who is not only Executive Director of the company but also the concept, visual, and stage director for this production, knows where to spend the money: the orchestra spilled out of the pit, with the first French horn basically sitting in the first row of the audience. Money that could have gone towards promotional posters, fancy programs, or even a scrim with the standard Parisian scene to cover up the naked back wall of the stage, instead went to musicians and singers. I guess that’s how you keep a local company going for 20 years. Even with the pit packed, the orchestra, under the direction of Grzegorz Nowak, was a little thin, with just a single flute, oboe and trumpet. Additional brass would have been welcomed in the opening chords, although I didn’t feel the same way about the parallel opening of Act IV, which felt very full.

On stage, the garret was outlined with parallel girders at a diagonal to indicate the ceiling, with the stovepipe from the fireplace sticking out like a periscope above the roofline; I’m not sure how Mimì could live upstairs to catch the first rays of spring. I completely misconceived the purpose of the girders for most of the first act. In welcoming remarks, Ms. Sobieska had promised us a “Bohème” “unlike any other we had seen” and somehow I became convinced that the stovepipe was a hydraulic for the girders and that we were going to see a kind of Lepage “Bohème.” Thankfully that was my mistake; a completely traditional production ensued. Perhaps the most controversial element was the lack of snow in Act III.

The True Stars of the Show

The curtain rose on Marcello at work on his painting (which looked less like The Passage of the Red Sea and more like Cavaradossi’s portrait of the Attavanti). Singing directly to his painting with his back to the audience, baritone Jianan Huang’s opening notes were somewhat smothered, but that was an end to that. Alone among the principals, Mr. Huang had no further difficulty being heard over the orchestra. He had a gorgeous, ringing tone that never flagged. To me, his vocal performance was the highlight of the evening, most especially in Act II, when he provided the climax to Musetta’s waltz, and in his scenes in Act III with both Mimì and Rodolfo. A full generation younger than either of the leads, Mr. Huang conveyed the passionate volatility of youth in a way the leads simply could not.

When tall, youthful Bryant Bush entered as Colline, the age discrepancy between the leads and the rest of the cast became even more apparent. He had a very nice moment in the last act as he bid adieu to his overcoat. Unfortunately, I hardly heard a note from him in the first unless the orchestra was virtually silent. James Binion’s Schaunard brought the party, literally and figuratively. I was riveted by his tale of the parrot, even if his roommates were too busy indulging in the bounty his labors brought. His energy carried forward to the Café Momus, where most of the time he looked as though he was the only one truly enjoying the evening.

Not Quite What You Would Expect

But of course, it is the relationship between Mimì and Rodolfo that is the heart of the story, and where productions will stand or fall, and where this production fell short. There is nothing wrong with a little fumbling as they hunt for the key. Awkwardness is a part of their initial encounter. But either the electricity is there when their hands touch or it is not. In a one-off performance like this, obviously the cast has limited rehearsal time and the finer points of stagecraft can’t necessarily be expected. But with the soprano focused more on the conductor than her tenor, the magic just didn’t happen. Jorge Pita Carreras’ “Che gelida manina” was met with warm applause, but I honestly don’t remember the last time a Mimì failed to have her great Act I aria acknowledged by the audience, and Ms. Sobieska seemed a little deflated by the silence that filled the Ohio Theater. She did recover to join in a beautiful “O soave fancuilla,” which blended their voices marvelously to end the first act on a high note.

But Mimì and Rodolfo virtually disappeared in the second act, fading into the background as Mr. Huang and Angela Mitchell’s flirty Musetta dominated the Café. Van Gogh-esque backdrops helped establish a fin de siècle ambience that until then had been achieved largely through shiny vests with tweedy jackets. The smallish chorus continuously circled the stage to create movement and volume, and an exuberant, athletic Parpignol (Kyle Kelvington) entertained the children.

The set for Act III was minimal – a hint of gates to be guarded, a copse of trees in the background. Nothing to detract from the roiling emotions that the contrasting couples must portray. While the orchestra, especially the strings, really stepped up and played sensitively, Mimì’s phrasing was chopped and diminished the lyricism of “Donde lieta usci,” which did not evoke the pity and sorrow it should. By the time she climbed the stairs to the garret one last time in Act IV, I no longer chalked up her shortness of breath to tuberculosis.

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