Carl DuPont, Gustavo Feulien, Inna Dukach, Gregory Turay, Elizaveta Ulakhovich, and Alexander Boyd
It is only three weeks since we last saw Puccini's heartbreaking masterpiece but La Bohême always offers fresh insights. Last night, at an outdoor performance in a very crowded Bryant Park, we took a macroscopic view of the story as an indictment of a society that doesn't care very well for its young and the ill. We didn't need modern dress or veiled references to any modern "plagues" to achieve such a realization. It happened because the direction was led by the music and the text without any directorial arrogance or program notes about the "concept". Costumes were of the period and the minimal set pieces let us know we were in the 19th c.
This by no means intends to shortchange the microscopic view--that of feckless youth forming instant relationships without consideration of common values, future plans, or compatibility. There are little moments that stand out. Consider the self-styled "artist" whose works don't sell, a writer who ekes out a modest living writing articles for a magazine, a philosopher who can barely afford to buy used books, and a musician who plays for a parrot. Who cannot help but think of contemporary times when young hopefuls share apartments in slums, living on ramen packages! To make matters worse, they are rarely covered by health insurance. La plus ça change, la plus c'est la meme chose!
Yet it is perceived by the public as a "love story"; but it is also about the loss of innocence. At the end of the opera, this group of youths will be forever changed. Perhaps Musetta and Rodolfo will be inspired to love better. Perhaps some of them will look for jobs. The libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa does not tell us, nor did the episodic novel written by Henri Murger. So we are free to form our own speculations. What a rich work that can be appreciated on so many level!
In this abridged production by New York City Opera (The Peoples's Opera!) several scenes were cut, but Director Michael Capasso took the stage as narrator and described what had happened that wasn't shown. We completely understand the challenges of cutting the opera to fit into a time frame and to suit the interests of a crowd in which many members were not hard core opera fans. We can only hope that some of them were sufficiently enchanted to seek out a complete performance. Although the Metropolitan Opera has replaced so many of its magnificent productions with disappointing ones, it would be a grave mistake to ditch the impressive Zeffirelli production with its lavish second act Xmas Eve scene or the snow falling quietly and merchants passing through the city gates when Mimi leaves the city to find Marcello in the third act.
My companion for the evening is a theater and film director and an opera "newbie"; we wanted his opinion on the dramatic aspects. Since there were no titles and no summary, we wondered whether the story was told as clearly as we thought. He definitely got the gist of things, thanks to the effective stage direction; however he made an interesting suggestion that narration could have been better accomplished by having one of the minor characters narrate the story. Also it would have been better to hear the plot before the scene, not afterward.
All things considered, the singers did a fine job of storytelling. Soprano Inna Dukach made a most sympathetic Mimi and tenor Gregory Turay was a most ardent Rodolfo. We are personally uncomfortable with amplification and are never sure we are hearing the voices as they are meant to be heard. We were rather delighted with Mr. Turay's pianissimi but not so delighted with his forcing the volume in the upper register. Perhaps it is just not possible to float the high notes under such circumstances but we do not know enough about sound design to say so.
Soprano Elizaveta Ulakhovich gave a splendid performance as Musetta but, due to the elimination of the populous café scene, she was obliged to sing her show-stopping "Quando m'en vo" to a man recruited from the audience instead of flirting with the café customers and soldiers. So, we had a bit of audience involvement.
Her love-hate relationship with Marcello was well realized and baritone Gustavo Feulien filled out his role as well as one could have hoped. To complete the group of bohemians we had Carl DuPont as the philosopher Colline and Alexander Boyd as the only member of the group who seems to find employment. To those who know the opera, the story of his being hired to play for a parrot brings a moment of comic relief; even funnier is the fact that his three flatmates are so famished that they can only focus on the victuals he has provided and completely ignore the story. There wasn't room for much comic relief in this production and we missed the way the four youths put one over on their landlord Benoit when he comes to collect the rent.
Fortunately Colline's Act IV aria "Vecchia zimarra" was not cut so we enjoyed the low voice of Mr. DuPont and appreciated the symbolism of his sacrifice. As most of you already know, Dear Reader, he pawns his old overcoat to buy medicine for the dying Mimi. He too is "adulting".
Of course, the scene that sets the drama in motion is the first act meeting between Rodolfo and Mimi in which Rodolfo gets Mimi to stay by hiding her key and she gets Rodolfo to take her out for dinner with the hint of more to come later. So much subtext in one scene! So reminiscent of 21st c. dating! Still, the music tells us only of their rapturous feelings.
Speaking of the music, we found the aural balance to be wanting and there were a couple occasions of feedback. Maestro Joseph Rescigno did his best with a chamber orchestra which played at ground level (of course) in front of the slightly elevated stage. These are the hazards of outdoor opera and we will not make harsh judgments of the orchestral balance.
As a matter of fact, we recall the long ago productions of The Metropolitan Opera in Central Park every summer which were abandoned in favor of concerts of arias. We recall laying blankets out at sunrise in order to sit in the first "row"; we remember asking the police officers in attendance how they enjoyed the opera (very much so), and how grateful and uncritical we were. So, in that spirit, we thank the artists who brought this production to the public free of charge and hope that a few converts to opera were made.
© meche kroop