We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, July 8, 2016


Chunfeng Li, José Rubio, Eric Delagrange, Jeff Byrnes, and Dángelo Diaz (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

Regular readers will recall the high esteem in which we hold Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance which has been providing training and performing experience to young artists for the past dozen years. So let us get down to the specifics of last night's La Bohème--the anti-Zeffirelli version. We do not mean to express the slightest dissatisfaction with that version and would despair if the Met replaced it, as it has regrettably done to so many of Zeffirelli's masterpieces.  We only want to suggest that P2P has provided a different way of looking at this intimate story--a story of growing up and accepting reality.

P2P's annual performances always accomplish miracles by focusing on the interactions between the characters, who seem to grow before our very eyes. In the horseplay of Act I, Scene I (pictured above) we see a group of young men sharing a garret in Paris, unable to afford food and wood for the fire.  We do not need modern dress or contemporary slang to identify with their predicament. They joke and tease and cheer each other up. They pull a fast one on their landlord Benoit (a hilarious performance by Eric Delagrange) by getting him tipsy, drawing him into a confession of sexual escapades, and then mock-shaming him.  So puerile!  So believable! How can one not think of the young men who converge upon NYC and cram themselves into a tiny space, just for the stimulation of living here! 

Director Ian Campbell did not miss a single trick in illuminating the personalities of the frustrated writer Rodolfo (Dángelo Diaz), the equally frustrated painter Marcello (Jeff Byrnes), the unshaven philosopher Colline (Chunfeng Li) and the musician Schaunard (José Rubio) who seems to be the provider of sustenance.  

When Schaunard is relating the amusing story of how he earned money to bring home the bacon, no one pays attention because they are only interested in stuffing their famished mouths. Joking about saintliness and placing a large round platter behind the head to look like a halo in a religious painting was another clever touch. Every bit of Puccini's well-considered orchestration was employed to support the onstage action.

When Mimi (Jessica Sandidge) enters to get a light for her candle, the entire mood changes and the frisky tunes turn lyrical. Anyone who has had the experience of meeting a potential lover will recognize the verisimilitude of this scene in which Rodolfo sings about himself in boastful terms and Mimi, visibly impressed, searches modestly for something to relate about her own life, and gradually opens up emotionally and vocally.
Eric Delagrange, Claire Coolen, and Jeff Byrnes (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

In Act II, the wealthy fop Alcindoro (Mr. Delagrange, revealing significant versatility) is outraged by the behavior of Musetta.  We have never witnessed a production that so cleverly used Puccini's music.  Three admirers of Musetta successively present her with roses (yellow, of course) just before her big aria--all set up by Puccini's score and realized by Mr. Campbell.  

She inches her chair ever closer to the man she really loves (Marcello), leaving poor Alcindoro sitting at the table by himself. This "relationship" makes one think of the wealthy older men and the nubile young women who meet on the website "Seeking Arrangements". Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies. Everything old is new again.

Even Mimi's character is revealed a bit more in this scene as she flirts with a gendarme--and Rodolfo's jealousy emerges.  He has just bought Mimi a bonnet and now that he has invested in her he needs to protect his investment. 

The rowdy children and their put-upon mothers were well-portrayed as the children begged for toys from Parpignol (portrayed by Sergio Stefani).

In Act III, the scene opens at the city gates with a passive-aggressive Sergeant (a most believable Thomas Petrushka) who is going to take his sweet time drinking his coffee while the tradespeople are kept waiting in the cold. Does this not remind us of civil servants of today?

Mimi has come to find Marcello to get some advice. Rodolfo's affections have cooled. Marcello confronts him and, like any young man of today, he first blames Mimi for being a flirt, but finally owns up to his deepest fear-- she is terribly sick and he cannot even express the fear that she will die and leave him.

Mimi is hidden in the shadows eavesdropping and one can witness her dawning realization of the extent of her illness. We get to see her inner strength of character. We feel the grief of young people whose lives will be terminated before they have time to have lived them.  This act was a masterpiece of direction and acting.
Dángelo Diaz and Jessica Sandidge (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

In Act IV, Rodolfo and Marcello pretend to each other that they don't care about their lost loves but their private thoughts are revealed both musically and lyrically. Who cannot relate to these attempts to deny loss! We get to see Musetta's noble character that underlies her superficial histrionics.

When Colline clutches the overcoat he will pawn we know he is bidding farewell to far more than a piece of clothing.  Can we all remember a time when we suffered a nearly unbearable loss and just knew that our lives would never ever be the same?

This group of six young people will be reduced to five. In some ways, their lives will be diminished but in other ways they will have grown up.  The final tableau when, one by one, they realize that Mimi has died was a stark one and perfectly matched Puccini's tragic music.

We have dealt at such length with the characters themselves because that is what struck us most. A sterling production like this one causes us to relate to people of other times and places. P2P's productions are always authentic. Mr. Campbell's direction served the libretto of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. There was no pandering to "modern audiences".  There was no self-serving egotism.
But let us not neglect the musical and production values which underlay the excellence of the drama. The singing was of the highest order and always supported the characterization. Ms. Sandidge's lovely soprano was appropriately colored between moments of joy and moments of anxiety and pain.  It was a knockout performance.

Another knockout performance was that of Ms. Coolen whose robust soprano sailed over the orchestration and was accompanied by all the right gestures of a woman accustomed to manipulating men. Her delivery of "Musetta's waltz" had an astonishing diminuendo that was spun out beautifully for a time in which we held our breath!

Mr. Diaz' tenor has a wonderful timbre and he established good chemistry with Ms. Sandige. Like many young tenors, he will have to learn not to push for his high notes but rather to work on floating them. 

Mr. Byrnes uses his baritone instrument well and impressed us with his sincerity and musicality.
We have nothing but admiration for the way Mr. Li's bass resonated in his "Vecchia Zimarra" and for Mr. Rubio's recounting of the tale of the parrot and the poisoned parsley.

Mr. Delagrange delighted and Mr. Petrushka evoked some knowing nods.

Maestro Willie Anthony Waters led his orchestra with clarity of line but occasionally overwhelmed the singers. There were times when we wanted him to just lighten up.

Noby Ishida provided for a very well trained chorus.

Charles R. Caine's costume designs were just about perfect.

April Joy Vester's set utilized something resembling large shoji screens as background which served well as garret windows but were just confusing in the Café Momus scene as well as the scene taking place at the city gates. However, it did allow for short intermissions! The furniture in the garret was appropriately minimal.

Joshua Rose's lighting was effective, indicating when the fire in the stove was burning hot or dying down.

Italian diction was excellent, with much credit to Italian coach Sergio Stefani. We never noticed when the titles vanished for we-don't-know-how-long. Every word was crystal clear.

This most remarkable success came out of six weeks of intense work in every aspect of performance and the establishment of a true ensemble feel. All this training is provided at no cost to those accepted into the program; and this year, for the first time, the generosity of patrons permitted stipends for the performers. 

There will be another performance with this same wonderful cast on Saturday night. And on Friday night and Sunday matinée, other members of this program will perform Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. We can scarcely contain our excitement.

(c) meche kroop

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