San Francisco Opera 2017 Review – La Boheme: Uneven Cast Still Leads to Musical Magic

Photo by Cory Weaver

It’s easy to love Puccini’s “La Bohème:” art, love, friends who romp and cavort, street scenes with lively genre action, and music to die for. Puccini’s classic thrills even non-opera lovers. “I could go every night,” we hear spectators say on leaving the War Memorial Opera House.

Bringing to life again this Co-production with Houston Grand Opera, originally performed there in 2012, and in San Francisco in 2014, and the Canadian Opera Company, San Francisco’s final summer production has that effect on many. But do we feel first and lost love when the curtain comes down? Or do we just remember it?

Orchestral Coloring

Conducted by Carlo Montanaro, the 68-piece orchestra of 40 strings, harp, clarinets, timpani and percussion colors the already colorful text like a film score, swooping and leaping along. However, the over-all effect is that the bountiful stage action lacks time to caress it all into being. That is unless you were trying to give a simulacrum of what it was all about.

Both Puccini’s score and Giacosa and Ilica’s libretto is like a jack-in-the-box of swoops and leaps rather than being cultivated to bring forth feeling. The onstage musicians, aptly costumed in Act II, however, provide more appropriate tempi, snare drums and trumpets and piccolos, enlivening the scene and providing even more merriment. Backstage percussion at the end of Act III accents the love duet as well.

A Dashing Hero

Rodolfo was colorfully played by Mexican tenor, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, whose high notes ring bright and occasionally soar. From the famous Act I duet between Rodolfo, “Che gelida mannina” to Mimì’s ” Mi Chiamano Mimì,” we experience the sweetness of first, young love. In the first two acts, Chacón-Cruz acted and sung playfully, as he tossed his poetry into the stove for warmth, and charmingly teased Marcello to burn his painting of Moses Crossing the Red Sea to be a good candidate to follow. Chacón-Cruz’s good looks, graceful bounding, plus his warm tenor made him a fine candidate for the lyric ardor in the score. But did he stop to cultivate it? When the orchestra bounded, he kept his eye on the conductor more than his beloved Mimì. When he grabbed her hand at the end of Act III, in the justly famous snowfall scene, he led her rather than coaxed her to come away with him to warmth and safety. That she went, of course, was staged, and well, but rather than feel, “Ah, Rodolfo, I will go with you anywhere, anytime,” she turned, leaned her head on his ready-shoulder and followed the pre-planned path upstage. On the other hand, it reminded us: Women can be nice, obedient as well, courteous. Love? Well, we guess so.

A heartbreaking heroine

Julie Adams, the soprano playing Mimì in this performance, sang with ardor and flame. She started off rather tentative, making us believe that she was the shy, unpracticed heroine-neighbor, but also the girl determined to knock on the door of her charming neighbor. By Act III, however, such not-completely credible-but-trying-hard-to-be manner dissolved into more ease. The warm and rich soprano voice could play Poppea as well as Amneris, if not Aida, and it was not hard to picture her taking command in Monteverdi’s masterpiece or Verdi’s. In Act IV, the ghostly white-make-upped face found Adams even more at ease. Lying propped up in her bed for her death scene, she sang with more conviction and control, truly transforming into the heroine, even when dying. It felt hard to “lose” her.

Best Friends

The quartet of friends – Marcello, Schaunard, Colline, and Rodolfo, rollicking, amiable, fun-loving poor artists – danced and sang into our hearts. It may be Paris in the 1840s, but it is also our very own UC Berkeley dormitory, UCLA, Soho, or Greenwich Village. Knowing each other’s foibles as they do, they frolicked easily with each other, singing all the way. Not always do we hear precisely what they are singing – the words swallowed by the music of Puccini’s beautiful blend of bass, baritone, bass-baritone and tenor, and a lack of clean diction. A pity not to hear them enunciated, but the point did get across – life is terrific even if you’re cold or hungry or so damned poor. Schaunard, played by Bass-Baritone, Brad Walker, whose lament over his coat in Act IV was one such case in point: the mock-heroic solemnity did not fully register until he rose from his sitting position to standing while singing to his well-worn and beloved coat. Even so, his voice remained too soft and low to fully to enjoy the impact.

This was true for Marcello as well, amply played by Norwegian baritone, Audun Iversen, a current Adler Fellow. A good foil for the jaunty Rodolfo, we missed some of Marcello’s words. Was it the diction? The beard? The dropped chin? Or was it, his reluctance to sing out? When he did, however, his voice was warm and nutty, his aspiration climbing along with his wish to express his more complicated feelings for Rodolfo, or his courtesan-sweetheart, the lovely Musetta, who taunted him so expertly in the Café in Act II. It was she who roused his own “joie de vivre” from slump and a low profile into an equally vivacious sweetheart.

Colline, played by Bass Scott Conner was a good side-kick to this group, both looking the part with his below-ear hair comb and rough-and-ready style as he amplified the deeper range of the quartet. This was further strengthened by veteran performer of 15 years with SFO, Dale Travis, who played the dual role of Benoit, the lascivious landlord, and Alcindoro.

Soprano Ellie Dehn owned Musetta in this performance, her character’s fail-safe savvy lifted not only Marcello’s mood, but everyone else’s in the festive Parisian scene. She moved like a hummingbird from the Viscount stuck holding her many packages – which, of course, she cajoled him into buying – to removing her shoe – and to her bumps and grinds at the back of Marcello’s chair – dip, soar, climb higher, higher, perch, land. We savored such a display, even as the darker strand of the story lived smack dab in the middle of it. Musetta’s “carpe diem” reminded us  that “ life is fleeting, make use of your time.”

Comic and lyric, Dehn’s flexible Musetta gave us just what we needed – a hurrah for life even as it disappoints us.

The Chorus deserves much credit as well in Act II – the street vendors, the band, the dancers, surrounding Parpinole’s gaily decorated cart, as well as the San Francisco Boys and Girls Choruses– the Boys Chorus led by Ian Robertson, the Girls by Artistic Director Lisa Bielwa and Principal Music Director and Conductor, Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

The overall direction by Britain’s John Caird enabled us to savor the sweetness of our youth and our romances and ravages, and we saw it from both outside and in. Not only from the revolving sets but from the contrapuntal actions that embroider the stage with the stories we follow throughout, together weaving this universal story so loved and celebrated from the height of the romantic age along with the rise of both the individual and nationalistic fervor. While Verdi aimed his nationalistic aspirations toward a unified Italy, Puccini let the heart rule his musical vision. Hence, our audience member who could “Go to see La Bohème every night,” lifted beyond her dailies, into the realm of melody, harmony and splendid feeling. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? And if we don’t get the depth of this from the performances at SFO, despite these young and vibrant singers, we get a reminder that boosts us to live more what we feel they could be. Gratitude for this and for Puccini, as always, for taking us into the realm of magic and music that never grows old.

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