By Harvey Steiman
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor, Nicola Luisotti. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 19.11.2008 (HS)
Mimì: Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Marcello: Brian Mulligan (baritone)
Musetta: Norah Amsellem (soprano)
Colline: Oren Gradus (bass)
Schaunard: Brian Leerhuber (baritone)
Benoit, Alcindoro: Dale Travis (bass)
Parpignol: Colby Roberts (tenor)
Director: Harry Silverstein
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Walter Mahoney
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Something extraordinary is happening at San Francisco Opera. Not only has David Gockley raised the company’s fall offerings to a higher level of consistency than anything seen here in years, but conductor Nicola Luisotti arrived this week to deliver an electrifying preview of his upcoming tenure as music director. He replaces Donald Runnicles, who concludes his 16-year tenure in June 2009.
Luisotti grew up in Lucca, Puccini’s home town, so it should surprise no one that he could lead such a scintillating performance of the composer’s much loved but often under-represented opera, La Bohéme. Led by a couple of eastern Europeans—Romanian soprano Angela Gheorgiu as Mimì and Polish tenor Pyotr Beczala as Rodolfo—the cast was strong right down the line, not a weak link in the bunch. But it was the clarity, responsiveness and sure-handedness of the orchestra that riveted attention from the very first notes.
It’s hard to imagine a better realization of what Puccini wrote. Seemingly in every phrase, Luisotti drew out nuances one seldom hears. Small details, such as the sighing flicker of the flames as Rodolfo burns his play to warm the frigid garret, emerged almost organically, becoming part of the musical structure. And later, telling gestures like the wisps of music alluding to earlier scenes flitted through with just enough emphasis to call one’s attention to them without losing the flow. In the final scene, the nostalgic references to Mimì and Rodolfo’s Act I love duet could not have tugged at the heart more profoundly.
But the magic happened most tellingly in the final pages of Act III. In the quartet, the conductor’s challenge is to keep the sweetness flowing in Mimì and Rodolfo’s music of parting, then reconciliation, even when Musetta and Marcello interrupt with their bickering. Not only could we feel the tender strands through it all, but Luisotti pulled off something of a miracle by making the music seem to hover weightlessly in the final measure, right up to the final crash in the orchestra at the curtain.
That kind of conducting bodes well for San Francisco Opera’s future. Musical matters have done just fine in recent years under Runnicles, whose strength lies in German and English opera. Though Runnicles has whipped up some highly emotional performances in Italian opera, too, we haven’t heard this kind of vivid, superbly detailed work in Puccini or Verdi in this house for years. Maybe ever.
This may help assuage inevitable financial cutbacks due to the current economic downturn. In pre-curtain remarks, Gockley told the audience that the company must scale back some of its ambitious plans for next year and possibly beyond, but he promised no compromise in casting or musical elements.
If some productions must take the stage a few more times, one could do worse than Michael Yeargan’s delicious sets for Bohème. The garret, appropriately cramped into a box centered in the large stage, features a bed built on a pile of books and windows so sooty you can’t see out of them. Flats framing the garret pull away first to reveal the stairway leading up to it and then, during the Act I love duet, disappear entirely into the wings, opening the lovers to the rooftops of Paris. In Act II the Café Momus pulls downstage to bring the intimate activities inside, and Act III evokes the grimy edge of Paris perfectly. Director Harry Silverstein drew naturalistic acting from the whole cast, and even had the chorus looking spontaneous as its members roamed the stage in Acts II and III.
As for the cast, Gheorgiù and Beczala made a sweet and ardent pair of lovers. The soprano can look and sound girlish, and she made telling use of her relatively small voice by infusing her music with long-breathed phrasing. Her best moments were the quietest, most delicate phrases, especially the evanescent end of Act III and the fading of Mimì in Act IV. Elsewhere, the creamy top half of her voice made the musical peaks shine. Beczala’s bright, high tenor scaled the heights of his arias with ease, his effortless phrasing vigorous and youthful. There wasn’t a hint of artifice in his portrayal, and he was canny enough to imply from the start just how jealous a lover he would be.
Their big moments were gems, every one of them. Beczala started off strong in “Che gelida manina,” and Gheorgiu followed with a coy “Mi chiamano Mimì” before “O soave fanciulla” put the cap on Act I with a fully realized, beautifully sung duet. Gheorgiu got stronger as the opera progressed, melting hearts with a tenderly affecting “Addio, senza rancor” in Act III, then joining Beczala for that unforgettable duet. She touchingly faded away in Act IV, though not without slipping in a few arching phrases before expiring. Her recollection of “Che gelida manina” induced tears.
As the secondary pair, French soprano Norah Ansellem deployed a steely sound and saucy demeanor as Musetta, while American baritone Brian Mulligan brought a welcome purity of tone to Marcello. Their byplay managed to feel fresh in Act II, as she teases him with a showy “Quando m’en vo’” and he plays the huffy ex-lover only to reconcile after she sends her aging paramour away. Mulligan’s silken sound matched well with Beczala’s for a touching Act IV duet, “O Mimì, tu più non torni.”
The men did well across the board. Oren Gradus gave Colline’s coat arietta the proper gravitas and Brian Leerhuber completed the quartet of Bohemians as a resonant Schaunard. As the landlord Benoit and the geezer Alcindoro, veteran bass Dale Travis actually sang all the notes and sang them well. High marks, too, to the chorus, which matched the orchestra in attentiveness to detail and responsiveness to Luisotti’s lead.
In the end, it was Luisotti’s show. He proved himself to be an opera conductor to compare with the greats. And he’s only 47 years old. Musically, SFO’s future appears to be in good hands.