|An 1840's Xmas Eve celebration enjoyed on New Year's Day 2016|
We almost always prefer to see an opera presented in its original time and place; how pleased we were that our first experience with Amore Opera honored Puccini with such an authentic production of his 1896 opera La Bohème. Now beginning their seventh season, Amore Opera has found a worthy home in the Sheen Center on Bleeker St. Although it is a challenge for the singers to sing over the orchestra when there is no pit, they can all be congratulated for turning in some impressive performances. The theater is sized just right for intimacy, allowing everyone to feel a part of the action.
Although there are four casts, we were delighted with the cast we heard last night. Tonight's performance and the Sunday matinée may have different casts but they will probably excel to the same extent. The lead roles were performed with vocal excellence and dramatic validity. Soprano Jessica Sandidge made a touching Mimi and sang with a beautiful bloom at the top of her register. Her characterization had her living up to Rodolfo's description of her as "always smiling". Even as she lay dying in Act IV, her focus was not on her death but on her happy memories with her beloved.
Tenor Edgar Jaramillo is well known to us and has always sung right from the heart. Thankfully, he never pushes at the top of his register but sings with ease. In this role he had the opportunity to do the bonhomie stuff with his flatmates and also to portray the playful lover and the despairing one as well. All this was handled with aplomb.
Baritone Robert Garner made a splendid Marcello revealing a great deal of insight into an ambivalent relationship. He is madly in love with a difficult woman--the theatrical Musetta--and often enraged by her. His instrument is substantial and lovely to hear. It's quite a leap from the Metropolitan Opera Chorus to a leading role and he crossed that river as if it were a rivulet. The Act III duet with Mr. Jaramillo was a delight to the ear.
As Musetta, soprano Iris Karlin commanded the stage with her arresting presence and fine bright voice. It was lovely to hear and to watch a different side of her character emerge in Act IV as she focused on making Mimi's last moments on earth more tolerable.
We also enjoyed Dan Boruchowitz's fine baritone in the role of Schaunard. In many productions, his Act I description of how he came by the funds for filling the table of his flatmates goes rather unnoticed. Here, the joke was that the bohemian boys paid him no attention while the audience got an earful of gorgeous singing. We paid attention even as they ignored him.
Somewhat disappointing was the Colline of bass Gennadiy Vysotskiy. He neither looked nor sounded like a member of the group although he participated generously in the horseplay. "Vecchia zimarra" is one of our all-time favorite arias but this time it did not even achieve minimal standards.
Character baritone David Seatter was completely marvelous in both roles--as the landlord Benoit and as Alcindoro, Musetta's wealthy "patron".
The entire affair was well directed by founding Artistic Director Nathan Hull. There were so many directorial flourishes that made each scene seem real. For example, one of the customs officials (Thomas Geib) skims something off the top of a merchant's basket and slips it into his pocket. (The other customs officer was played by Peter Nasonov.) In Act II, the wonderful waitress (Julie Longmuir) must run after a thieving street urchin. It's those little touches that provide verisimilitude!
We have heard Jason Tramm conduct on a few occasions and have admired his batonery. (Pardon the neologism.) But last night the orchestra was ragged with several instrumentalists off pitch. Particularly egregious was the flute in Act I. The musicians gradually came together as the evening wore on but failed to achieve the phrasing and pacing that we want in Puccini.
Costumes by Ghislaine Sabiti were appropriate with the bohemian boys wearing tattered but period appropriate suits. Musetta looked as theatrical and overdone as one would hope for with Mimi's dress of modest cut and hue. We have no idea who did the wigs but, well, they were disastrous. Ms. Karlin had bright red masses of curls while Ms. Sandidge's beautiful blond hair was covered by an ugly black wig that wasn't even stylistically appropriate. We believe that her blond hair just wouldn't do because the libretto specifies brown. But black isn't brown!
Set design by Richard Cerullo utilized painted backdrops that worked just fine. The small stage worked very well as a garret. And in Act II, he somehow he made it work as Mr. Hull filled the stage with just enough people to convince us that we were in the Quartier Latin on Xmas Eve. The chorus sang well under the direction of David Macfarlane.
Andrew Trent's lighting made an attempt at artistry but didn't quite succeed. Lights were raised and dimmed to make a point but were not effective.
Those minimal cavils aside, the production was a most enjoyable one. The best proof is that we are still thinking about the characters and hoping that Marcello and Musetta will be sufficiently shocked by Mimi's death to concern themselves more with the health of their own relationship than they were with their power struggle. We wonder how long it will take Rodolfo to recover and when he will find a new love. Death is such a shock to young people! Such is the power of opera that, when well done, we can identify with the characters, even when separated by an ocean and two centuries.
(c) meche kroop