BWW Review: LA BOHEME Opens Santa Fe Opera's 2019 Season
On June 28, 2019, Santa Fe Opera opened its 63rd Season with Giacomo Puccini's tale of poverty-stricken young lovers in nineteenth century Paris, LA BOHEME. Stage Director Mary Birnbaum told the tale in a straight forward manner but with with an occasional twist that fomented conversation among audience members during the intermission and after the final act.
Would Musetta have worn pants? Costume Designer Camellia Koo had her wear them at the Momus and in the snow of Act III. Might Musetta have been pregnant in the last act? Koo's luscious pink brocade dress was designed for two. Koo kept Mimì and the men in subdued colors and timeless designs. Colline had his overcoat, but he rarely wore it. Mimì's pink hat, the "cuffietta rosa" that Rodolfo bought her, illuminated her charisma more brightly than her light blue overblouse and dark skirt.
Grace Laubacher's scenery was a revelation as to what can be done in a theater with few technical facilities. When the audience entered the theater there were houses on stage and the back was open to the dark clouds that framed setting sun. The houses were pushed aside to reveal the Act I set, a cramped garret with an open back. The set pieces were on rollers and people pushed them into place with choreographed moves. The result was a well thought-out version of 1830s Paris that arrived in place via balletic patterns. Anshuman Bhatia's ambient lighting added much to the final effect.
Myriad shiny box-like pieces came on stage for Act II and eventually turned into the Cafe Momus. Act III showed us deep winter by means of a snow-covered tree and an angular, drab hotel where Marcello and Musetta were working. When that scene evolved into the return of the garret for Act IV, it looked as before. When Mimì died, however, the set split into numerous pieces, leaving Rodolfo alone on a small island of grief. It was a most effective bit of staging.
Santa Fe's young, energetic Bohemians included Mario Chang as Rodolfo, Vanessa Vasquez as Mimì, Zachary Nelson, as Marcello, Gabriella Reyes as Musetta, Will Liverman as Schaunard, and Soloman Howard as the philosopher, Colline. They cavorted in a distinctive streetwise style as they celebrated Schaunard's arrival with food for all.
As Mimì, Vanessa Vasquez was shy and retiring at first but after a while astute observers realized she was busy capturing Rodolfo's heart. She wanted to go out on Christmas Eve and have fun with her neighbors. When she sang "Si, mi chiamano Mimì," she began demurely and her voice bloomed with creamy, opulent tones as she continued. Vasquez phrased with conviction and taste, purveying powerful vocalism as well as beauty of tone while hitting every note right at its center.
Henri Murger, the author of the original LA VIE DE BOHEME, based Rodolfo on himself and his book told of his own days as a struggling writer. The Rodolfo in this performance, Mario Chang, gave an ardent, dynamic portrayal of the poet and, although his middle register was sometimes tight, his high notes were never less than golden.
The part of Musetta was inspired by the somewhat unconventional actress, singer, and painter's model, Marie-Christine Roux. Charismatic Metropolitan Opera soprano Gabriella Reyes took over the part of Musetta on short notice but she made a mark on the Santa Fe audience with her large, full-blooded voice and ability to enter and sing her waltz, "Quando me'n vo," on roller skates!
As Marcello, smooth voiced baritone Zachary Nelson was the perfect opposite for Musetta. He could not live without her, but he was seldom comfortable in her presence and did not earn her respect until the last scene. Will Liverman was a gregarious Schaunard who told the story of the parrot with gusto. Bass Soloman Howard's sonorous voice was the perfect underpinning for the male quartet and his emotion-pulling "Overcoat Aria, "Vecchia zimarra," was a memorable highlight that pointed to the character's innate dignity.
As the landlord, Benoit, and the sugar-daddy, Alcindoro, Dale Travis created two different but equally amusing characters that added measurably to the story. Apprentices Duke Kim, Elliott Paige, Jarrett Logan Porter, and Seungyun Kim completed their cameos with judicious acting and solid vocalism. Chorus Master Susanne Sheston led the apprentices in providing a sonorous harmonic background for the opera's beautifully delineated crowd scenes.
Beginning with a rousing National Anthem, Conductor Jader Bignamini drew energetic and virtuosic playing from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra while being attentive to the needs of the singers. With brisk tempi in the light hearted scenes and slower but idiomatic music making in the tragic last act, he presented a glorious rendition of Puccini's immortal score. Santa Fe Opera's LA BOHèME can be seen on July 3, 6, 12, 19, and August 3, 7, 12, 17, 20, and 24.
Photo Credit Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera