Puccini, La Bohème

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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.

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Beethoven, Fidelio

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By Bernard Jacobson

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Portland Opera, soloists, cond. Arthur Fagen, original production by Chris Alexander, stage direction by Helena Binder, sets by Robert Dahlstrom, costumes by Catherine Meacham Hunt, lighting designer Alan Burrett, chorus master Robert Ainsley, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 15.11.2008 (BJ)

Dubious as I am about directorially updated opera, having seen some photographs of the contemporary settings on the company’s web site, I reprehensibly went to Portland Opera’s Fidelio with a dismissive first sentence all ready in my mind.

Well, forget it. Originally conceived by the multi-talented Chris Alexander for Seattle Opera, and brought to the Portland stage by Helena Binder, this was a production updated with such intelligence and insight as to achieve a truly revelatory realization of the work Donald Tovey described as “in Germany, the opera to which every right-thinking married couple goes on the anniversary of their wedding.”

Nor, having acknowledged that my prejudices simply don’t apply in this instance, do I in any case feel able to offer a review in conventional musicologically informed style. To see just this opera at just this extraordinary moment in the history of the United States was an absolutely special experience. Think of it: it was impossible not to see the prison where the action takes place as Guantánamo. The villainous prison governor, Don Pizarro, was obviously a stand-in for Dick Cheney (or perhaps for his more clueless but no less culpable sidekick in the White House). As Don Fernando, the bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd, a giant of a man, may not have been a physically apt impersonator of the president-elect, often affectionately referred to as “the skinny guy,” but his majestic demeanor and his rich-toned singing offered a satisfying likeness to the Obama oratorical style and unrufflable elegance. And in the final scene the atmosphere that flooded the stage with renewed hope and recovered freedom inescapably mirrored the sense of new beginnings now evident in a country that can once again begin to hold up its head among the civilized nations.


There were a few questionable details. I doubt whether, in Pizarro’s prison, the man watching the closed-circuit televisions monitoring the place would have been allowed to do his job in shirt-sleeved civvies–among all those uniformed guards, he looked more like a supervisor from Portland Opera’s production department. The confrontation between Leonore and Pizarro in the dungeon was dramatically unconvincing, because with his massive pistol in hand Pizarro would surely have blown Leonore away long before she brought out her own weapon. And the idea, in a production sung in German, of doing the spoken dialogue in English didn’t work for me; I hardly understood a word of it, because I couldn’t help hearing in my mind the so pointed German original. (How, by the way, can people leave out those two wonderful lines, Florestan’s “Meine Leonore, was hast du für mich getan?” and Leonore’s heart-stopping response, “Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan!”?)

In a cast of good but uneven quality, Greer Grimsley was a wonderfully and credibly vicious Don Pizarro, Arthur Woodley a sympathetic Rocco, and Jonathan Boyd and Jennifer Welch-Babidge made a likable pair as Jacquino and Marzelline, if perhaps they were less impressive vocally than Brendan Tuohy’s strongly sung First Prisoner and Jonathan Kimble’s Second Prisoner. In the central role of Fidelio/Leonore, Lori Phillips started well and acted with great conviction throughout, though by Act II she was sounding vocally strained. The Florestan, Jay Hunter Morris, didn’t erase memories of the great Jon Vickers, who simply was Florestan for many of us, but he did arouse them, and that is high praise.

I have to say that, under Arthur Fagen’s baton, the orchestra was hardly recognizable as the assured ensemble that played La traviata so brilliantly a month earlier. The performance I attended was the last of four, yet it took fully half an hour before conductor and singers achieved anything like closeness of ensemble, and the string tone was relatively feeble The horns, however, coped well with their challenging parts, and Robert Ainsley’s chorus was excellent.

About one specific musical idea I am in two minds. In Act I, the march that accompanies Pizarro’s entrance was done in a recorded version played back through the house audio system. The resulting denatured sound certainly jibed with the production’s emphasis on the totalitarian context of the story, but I regretted not hearing one of the most arresting numbers in the piece in its full sonorous power.

In the end, though, what mattered most was the humanity that shone through this Fidelio. The sight of that motley assemblage of ex-prisoners and their families milling around the stage in the final scene, amputees and a dwarf among them, was tonic to the spirit. I cried a lot.

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Donizetti, The Elixir of Love

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By Harvey Steiman

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera, Conductor Bruno Campanella, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 29.10.2008 (HS)

Cast:

Adina: Inva Mula (soprano)
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas (tenor)
Belcore: Giorgio Caoduro (baritone)
Dulcamara: Alessandro Corbelli (bass)
Giannetta: Ji Young Yang (soprano)


Nemorino: Ramón Vargas

In the very first scene of The Elixir of Love, re-set to a small town in nearby Napa Valley instead of “a small Italian village,” we meet Nemorino scooping ice cream for a gaggle of children. From the vintage of his ice cream truck and the costumes, it’s around 1915. He sees Adina on the town bandstand, wearing a sash proclaiming her “Queen of the Harvest” and signing up townspeople for library cards. He prepares a strawberry ice cream cone for her, but in delivering it he falls face-first and the ice cream tumbles to the ground. He picks it up, balances it on the cone and sheepishly offers it to her. She laughs and turns away.

In one deft moment, director James Robinson establishes the setting and the personalities of the two protagonists. Nemorino, played by tenor Ramón Vargas, is awkward and shy, and clearly infatuated with Adina, played by Inva Mula. She may be bookish but the town adores her. You can tell by the way they follow her around. The way she smiles at Nemorino, you can tell that she likes him but considers him unworthy. She’s a dish and she knows it. It’s only the first of many delightful and telling moments in this charming, colorful and apt production.



The Act I Set

Using painted flats and a Victorian bandstand as a unit set, the staging depicts a bucolic Napa Valley before its current incarnation as a luxury wine region. Those who know the Frank Loesser musical, also set in a early-20th-century Napa Valley, might be forgiven for thinking of “The Most Happy Fella.” In this story, infatuated with Adina, he buys an elixir from a traveling quack, supposedly like the one Isolde gave Tristan in the story Adina reads aloud in Scene I. Before the elixir (actually red wine) can work, Adina agrees to marry the army sergeant, Belcore, who rolls into town with a squad of recruits. It becomes clear, however, that Adina is only doing it to get to Nemorino, who joins the army to get the money to buy more of the elixir. Meanwhile, the whole town hears the rumor that he has inherited a fortune from a rich uncle, and when all the women flock to him, he’s convinced that it’s the elixir at work. In the end, Adina chooses him and pays off the sergeant to get Nemorino out of the army.

Vargas has a clear, high, lyric sound that’s ideal for Nemorino. He doesn’t play him as a bumpkin; he is just awkward and has low self-esteem. Mula has the slim, adorable looks and the light, creamy soprano to make an audience fall in love with her character. She knows who she is, and clearly is accustomed to getting her way.

Each character enters with a flourish. Dr. Dulcamara, the quack medicine man, played here by bass Alessandro Corbelli, arrives on a motorcycle with a sidecar. He places his suitcase full of elixir bottles on a small folding table, not the elaborate wagon seen in other productions. Corbelli does not overplay the character, either. You can tell he’s a slick con man, but he’s charming about it, not blatant. And he sings the music with spot-on articulation and diction. A team of leather-helmeted football players precedes Belcore, who practices plays with them as he sings his entrance aria. Baritone Giorgio Caoduro plays the character as pompous but totally unaware of it. He is just the school sports star a few years older. He also displays the best coloratura in the cast.

But the stars are Vargas and Mula. In the opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” Vargas spun out a gorgeous filament of sound, keeping the pulse of the music going while conveying the character’s joy at seeing a telltale tear on Adina’s face, evidence that she does indeed care for him. Mula, for her part, sang with youthful ease, creating a series of touching moments with Vargas as their relationship circles in on its denouement.

In the pit, conductor Bruno Campanella led a straightforward effort that sparkled just enough to keep everything moving along nicely, though not quite with the élan of the best performances of this familiar opera.

This being San Francisco, food is a running theme in this staging. Nemorino makes a sundae for Adina, which they share during their Act I duet, suggesting that Adina really might have feelings for him. Later, Adina idly snitches a few maraschino cherries from his truck. To drown his sorrows after Adina leaves Belcore before their wedding is completed the sergeant sits down to eat a whole pie during his Act II lament. He chooses it from an array of pastries brought by the townsfolk.

In the end, having won Adina, Nemorino repaints the generic “ice cream” sign atop his truck to say “Nemorino’s Ice Cream,” indicating that he finally has some self-esteem. And he definitely has become the most happy fella.

Pictures © Terrence McCarthy

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