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.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

ADULTING in the 19th century

Gabriella Reyes
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)
Vanessa Vasquez, Mario Chang, Will Liverman, Zachary Nelson, and Solomon Howard
(photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

In today's musical universe, it is rather common for contemporary operas to be praised by critics (not by us, to be sure) but abhorred by the opera going public. How interesting it is to us that Puccini's masterpiece La Bohême was adored by the public right from its premiere in Turin in 1896, yet strangely attacked by critics.

Today, we cannot imagine anyone finding fault with Puccini's melodies as they twine themselves around our hearts; nor do we find the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to be shocking or revolutionary. As a New Yorker, all it takes is a walk on the Lower East Side to see counterparts to the six young folk of the opera. Residing several to a room, scrounging meals, working day jobs to support themselves whilst they create art--all are features in common with the six young folk in the opera. Even Musetta has a counterpart among the young women who seek "arrangements".

The librettists wrote a somewhat romanticized version of the Bohemian lifestyle which the stories of Henri Murger presented in a more realistic fashion. This is a good thing because the carefree Mimi that Murger wrote about --who died alone in a hospital --might never have aroused our care and sympathy. As we  pointed out in our recent reviews, we need to connect with the lead characters and to see ourselves in them; we need to care what happens to them. The story is instrumental but it's the music inspired by the story that gives us the true operatic experience.

We have been looking forward for months to the production at Santa Fe Opera directed by one of our favorite directors--Mary Birnbaum. The cast is filled with familiar names --singers we have known and loved.

Take, for example, the radiant soprano Vanessa Vasquez who has won prizes at countless competitions singing Puccini; we have written many times about her glorious soprano and her convincing acting. Last night she gave the audience a memorable Mimi, perhaps a bit closer to Murger's Mimi than we usually see; she gave the impression of having had her eye on Rodolfo and was just waiting for an opportunity to connect with him.

As Rodolfo we heard the excellent tenor Mario Chang whose sweet vocal colors were just right for the role, although a bit on the soft side. We particularly loved the Act III duet "Senza rancor" in which the lovers go through several emotions, reminiscing about their lives together. We confess to being relieved when they decided to spend the rest of the winter together, even though we know the rest of the story more than well enough. We have been writing about Mr. Chang for years and still recall some noteworthy performances in the Lindemann Program of the Metropolitan Opera.

As Musetta, we heard Gabriella Reyes, another superb soprano who shared the stage with Ms. Vaquez at the Met National Council Finals. We recall her lovely "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade, and an aria from Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazona. We had the pleasure of reviewing her excellent performances as a singer with the Lindemann Program, the most memorable of which, for us, was her singing in Spanish-- above all in zarzuela. Last night she showed her versatility, singing and acting up a storm; she showed very different vocal colors in her showpiece aria "Quando m'en vo" in Act II, and a far more tender side in Act IV.

Brilliant baritone Zachary Nelson admirably fulfilled the role of the painter Marcello, besotted with the mercurial Musetta. We particularly enjoyed his interaction with Mimi in Act III. Mr. Nelson has a long-standing relationship with the Santa Fe Opera and was first heard as an Apprentice a number of years ago. It delights us that his artistry was noted and developed.

Baritone Will Liverman made a fine Schaunard. We loved the part in Act I when he tells the captivating story of the poisoned parrot, and his three friends, distracted by the food and wine he has brought, pay absolutely no attention. Since hearing Mr. Liverman as an award winner with Opera Index, we have followed his promising career with interest. There have been awards and recitals aplenty but what we recall best is that he introduced us to two operas we'd never heard--Albert Lortzing's 1842 comic opera Der Wildschütz, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

This is only the third time we have heard the booming bass of Soloman Howard; once was as the Bonze in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and the other was as the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni; both performances at the Santa Fe Opera. We were quite impressed with the depth of his sound and by his compelling stage presence. Our favorable impression was ratified by his performance as Colline. His "Vecchia zimarra" was beautifully rendered; it is a real heartbreaker as we in the audience realize that the coat he is parting with is symbolic of the carefree days of youth.

Veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis could not have been better as the landlord Benoit, getting tipsy with his delinquent bohemian tenants, and as the much put upon Alcindoro, Musetta's latest "patron".

Santa Fe Apprentices filled the stage in Act II and three of them filled small roles--Elliott Paige as the toy-seller Parpignol, Jarrett Logan Porter and Seungyun Kim as Customs Officers.

Maestro Jader Bignamini led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra through their Puccini paces and brought out every theme as it recurred in different guises. He brought a lively tempo to the horseplay in Act I and a slow heartbreaking tempo to Act IV. 

Director Mary Birnbaum wisely did not alter the time or place of the opera and gave us a fairly traditional production with a few novel flourishes. We were surprised in Act I when Mimi made the move on Rodolfo. Our only moment of disbelief was when Mimi asks Rodolfo to stop something when he wasn't doing anything!

It was a novel idea to have the Parisian folk ice-skating (actually on roller blades which looked like ice skates) and it's a wonder that Ms. Reyes did a creditable job.

It was also a novel idea to have Musetta very very pregnant in Act IV. We don't think it added to the story.

Grace Laubacher's set was effective. The garret had a sloping roof made of leaded glass and was set in front of a backdrop of typical French buildings off in the distance. The tavern in Act III (humorously called "La Mer Rouge"--recalling the panting Marcello was working on) was realistic; in the transition to Act IV, it was turned inside out to become the aforementioned garret.

Camellia Koo's costumes worked well. The bourgeois citizens of Paris were dressed in colorful typical early 19th c. costumes. The "bohemians" were notably dressed differently. In Act II, Musetta appears in a shocking pink jumpsuit and in Act III, she is wearing a man's suit. But isn't that what young artistic folk do in every generation?

This is a story of "adulting"; the lives of the surviving characters will be forever changed. It is a mark of a production's success when we care!

(c) meche kroop

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