Review: Seattle Opera’s La Boheme, March 6, 2013
By Melinda Bargreen
When a production of “La Bohème” can make a hardened music critic sniffle, you know you have a show that is doing Puccini proud. Seattle Opera has just such a show in its current “Bohème” – a fast-paced, naturalistic staging with young, believable singers of remarkable excellence.
Add to that a conductor who knows when to make the orchestra surge forward and when to cradle the voices with warmth and delicacy, and you have quite an evening in the theater. Conductor Carlo Montanaro gave the score a propulsive energy appropriate to the young Bohemians onstage, but never rushed the singers, letting the phrases unfold naturally.
And what singers: all of them believable in their post-adolescent goofiness, falling in and out of love, shouting and weeping and seducing and despairing. First among equals was Sardinian tenor Francesco Demuro as Rodolfo, with exactly the right style and the lyricism to set Puccini’s famous melodies aloft. His Mimi, the Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero, sang with exquisite tenderness, surprising the audience by floating gently up to high notes that are more commonly sung full-voice. (Her “Donde lieta” was a particular triumph.) The two of them were appealing actors, all the more so because of Tomer Zvulun’s naturalistic staging – which bypasses every usual operatic cliché and concentrates on a fresh retelling of the story.
The show’s biggest staging challenge, of course, is the Café Momus scene, stuffed with people and action, changing as fast as the swirl of a kaleidoscope. Zvulun got everybody where they needed to go, in a tumult that was just this side of chaos, but also with a tremendous sense of fun. All the parading and the excited children, the toy-seller Parpignol (Tim Janecke), Beth Kirchhoff’s well-trained chorus, and above all the maneuverings of Musetta (Nora Amsellem) as she wins back her lover Marcello (Michael Todd Simpson), were all beautifully integrated.
The staging also played up the contrast between the furious energy of the bickering Marcello and Musetta, and the lower-key and more respectful relationship of Mimi and Rodolfo. Amsellem, an adroit comedienne, has a voice that’s a shade heavy for Musetta, but she was delightful to watch – especially as she flounced away from her luckless patron Alcindoro (Tony Dillon). Simpson did a great job with Marcello, highly combustible but also empathetic to those around him. Andrew Garland was an effective Schaunard. And it’s really “luxury casting” when you have a fine, resonant bass like Arthur Woodley in the small but significant role of Colline.
The sets, designed for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis by Erhard Rom, were both striking and naturalistic, with a snow scene that drew applause from the delighted audience before the singers had a chance to utter a note. What really made things work, however, was the collage of period-style images on the curtain, which dissolved (via lighting) into the “real” streets and byways of the sets themselves. Robert Wierzel’s imaginative, effective lighting created lovely tableaux, particularly at the close of the third act. The acts were linked together by a clever use of images: a large “photograph” of the last moments of the preceding scene appeared on the curtain at the start of the next scene.
The terrific costumes gave opera fans a moment to remember the greatness of designer Martin Pakledinaz (1953-2012), an important figure in Seattle Opera annals who left us far too soon.