Review: OPERA À LA CARTE'S PRODUCTION OF LA BOHÈME at Tenth Avenue Arts Center In East Village

A New San Diego Opera Company Opens Surprises with a New Take on an Old Favorite

By: May. 22, 2024
Review: OPERA À LA CARTE'S PRODUCTION OF LA BOHÈME at Tenth Avenue Arts Center In East Village
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

The first act of Opera À La Carte’s production of La bohème featured costuming and well-used furniture that made Rodolfo’s bohemian Parisian garret seem more real than the elaborate expensive sets and costumes of many other productions. After all, Rodolfo (tenor Adam Caughey) and his three friends are starving artists, and bohème is a notable example of opera verismo.

Who knew? Turns out you can stage a memorable version of La bohème with underappreciated local singers and a modest budget.

Review: OPERA À LA CARTE'S PRODUCTION OF LA BOHÈME at Tenth Avenue Arts Center In East Village
First Act's Modest but Effect Set (Ron Bierman)

I spoke briefly with Director Angelina Réaux before the first act. She said she’d spent four months shopping for props and costumes -- 74 of the latter. Irregularly scheduled rehearsals were running during the same four months of shopping. It must have required enormous dedication and hard work for her and soprano Abla Hamza (photo at top), the company’s founder and Executive and Artistic Director, to keep the cast and support staff committed for that long when many probably had other commitments.

A decision to stage performances on four consecutive nights added to the challenge. A double set of singers was needed for the exhausting roles of Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello so that neither set sang Puccini’s taxing vocal score on two successive evenings and risk damaging their voices. When I attended on the second evening, the performers sang and acted with entertaining strength and confidence.  

Director Réaux said she’d moved the opera’s setting a century ahead to occupied France during WW II. She explained it added an additional element of struggle to the story. In the café Momus of the second act, for example, the original Alcindor is a French official dining with Musetta. Soprano Michelle Gallardo-Arias’s interpretation of Quando m'en vo, one of Puccini’s most popular arias, was one of the evening’s highlights. When she rose to sing it In Réaux’ setting, the official (Réaux’ husband, baritone Michael Sokol) wears the uniform of a collaborating Nazi officer, and there is little doubt Musetta, his seductress and Marcello’s ex, is flirting with Marcello (baritone Michael Segura) and humiliating Alcindor. She then compounds her risk when she exits with Marcello and leaves Alcindor with the bill for Marcello and his friends.

Review: OPERA À LA CARTE'S PRODUCTION OF LA BOHÈME at Tenth Avenue Arts Center In East Village
Baritone Michael Segura

Gallardo-Arias’s confident, flirtatious voice and steamy approach blended well with Segura’s intense acting and strong voice. Their on and off love affair, like the action in the garret of the opening act, was compellingly realistic.

The café scene around the pair was filled with lively entertaining motion.  A chorus, prepared by the versatile Sokol, included adults and six children who appeared to be having a lot of fun. The scene became even more hectic when toy-seller Papignol (tenor Cole Tornberg) entered on a bicycle trailing colorful ballons and made circles around the stage.

With the tiered seating that began at stage level, the cast was just a couple of yards away, at times even closer. That meant acting skill was more important than usual. Everyone in the audience could see facial expressions clearly, without the opera glasses of large venues.

That was an advantage throughout the production, and enhanced the comic effect when  Rodolfo and his three garret roommates teased each other, fought with pillows or made sure the landlord Benoit (a second role for Sokol) had trouble collecting the rent.

Baritone Travis Sherwood excelled as Schaunader who constantly entertains his friends as he reacts to their problems and dispenses advice, often with a sly, good-natured exaggeration. He, Caughey, Segura and bass Shelby Condray (as Colline) sang well together, and the horseplay of a pillow fight and playful teasing made them seem real-life friends, which they may well be after four months of rehearsals.

Review: OPERA À LA CARTE'S PRODUCTION OF LA BOHÈME at Tenth Avenue Arts Center In East Village
Baritone Travis Sherwood

Soprano Abla Hamza has a powerful voice and used it throughout, making her Mimi seem stronger than that of most interpreters, though still affecting as she sang Donde lieta usci, a highlight aria in the third act. But Mimi’s first act duet with Rodolfo, another of Puccini’s best-known arias, was a little less affecting than usual. Until his attractive tenor warmed up, Caughey seemed to be straining a bit to match Hamza when Puccini called for difficult leaps to the higher range. 

The company had expected to use the supertitles that have been common for decades, but it proved to be impractical to display them. They would have had to be mounted so high in the small theater that it would have been difficult to follow the action while reading them.

Conductor Yewon Lee kept the singers and piano accompanist Suzanne Shick in synch. The orchestra is usually such an important part of a La bohème production that I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to its absence. The difficult piano transcription is more than two hours long and was played with fitting emotions by Shick with only short breaks for set changes.   

Executive Director Hamza founded the new company to offer opportunities for local professional opera singers as national opportunities continue to shrink. She also hopes to attract San Diegan’s who are new to opera by staging it in less intimidating venues with lower ticket prices.

Before the curtain rose,  Réaux announced that the company plans to produce Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera next season, and made a pitch for much appreciated donations. Based on its first production, Opera À La Carte San Diego is a worthy cause.

Uncredited photos compliments of Opera À La Cart

The reviewed perfomance took place on May 17, 2024 


To post a comment, you must register and login.