GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohème—A. Fout (Mimì), E. Barry (Rodolfo), J. Echols (Musetta), T. Cook (Marcello), S. Howard (Colline), J. Orduña (Schaunard), K. Melges (Benoît, Alcindoro), W. Henderson (Parpignol), S. Currlin (Sergeant), T. Keefe (Customs Officer); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Robert Moody, conductor [Directed by Crystal Manich; Dr. Scott R. MacLeod, Chorus Director; Frances Page, Children’s Chorus Director; Lighting by Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann; Costumes by Malabar, Ltd; Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, NC; Sunday, 26 January 2014]
Virtually every singer with a shard of voice and even a half-hearted appreciation for opera has been involved in some way with a performance of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, and the opera is as much a communal rite of passage for audiences as for aspiring Tebaldis and Pavarottis. From the ranks of seasoned opera-goers who strive to ensure that their tears are dried before the house lights come up lest they be mistaken for sentimental Philistines to the neophytes who regard the opera as a backdrop for amorous intrigues involving Cher and Nicolas Cage, audiences rely upon La bohème for the refulgent melodies and unapologetically facile emotional catharses for which they must work harder in performances of 'heavier,' more ostentatiously intellectual scores. This contributes mightily to both the opera's and the composer's popularities, yet it does Puccini a profound, albeit profitable disservice. Never included by the cognoscenti among the ranks of truly great composers of opera and indeed dismissed by many critics and 'serious' musicians as an overrated tunesmith with an embarrassing fancy for tear-jerking melodrama, Puccini has seldom been recognized for the inventiveness of his orchestrations and unerring if slightly formulaic theatrical instincts. The Puccini apologist might argue that, while audiences and critics north of the Alps were scratching their heads over post-Romantic and increasingly Impressionistic musical monstrosities, the operatic Everyman from Lucca was triumphantly buying expensive automobiles and lakeside villas, but even this panders to the notion that Puccini was a craftsman, not an artist; to use Musetta's inflammatory assessment of Marcello, a house-painter, not a Picasso. As surely as any work of art in history, though, La bohème has been damned by its own popularity. Those personages who inhabit ivory towers suggest that Puccini is a Dittersdorf rather than a Mozart, but more than a century of prominence in the repertories of nearly every opera company in the world surely establishes that La bohème is a Nozze di Figaro rather than a Doktor und Apotheker. A sincere, unhackneyed performance of La bohème can strip away much of the accumulated muck from Puccini's reputation as a composer and dramatist, and North Carolina Opera provided nothing less.
More noticeably than with many performances of La bohème in houses large and small, this performance was a decidedly collaborative affair, with superb coordination between stage and pit. Conductor Robert Moody, Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, maintained impressive tightness of ensemble throughout the performance: even the intrusion of ill-timed applause did not jeopardize the controlled momentum of the famed concertato in Act Two. The fantastic impact of the whole of Act Two was due in no small part to the wondrously vibrant singing of the North Carolina Opera Chorus. Prepared by Dr. Scott R. MacLeod to a level of excellence that exceeded the work of the choruses of much larger opera companies, the NCO Chorus sang with charming brio and crispness of diction and ensemble, evoking a genuine sense of the joy of Christmas Eve in Act Two. The Children’s Chorus, trained by Frances Page, also sang wonderfully, their enthusiasm filling every corner of the auditorium and their sure intonation contributing significantly to the frisson of the ensemble. Maestro Moody’s conducting drew from the NCO Orchestra playing of great accuracy and poise. The intelligence of Puccini’s orchestration was revealed in passage after passage of deftly-blended timbres, and both solo instruments and the full orchestra phrased in tandem with the principals to hypnotic effect. Harpist Laura Byrne gave an especially lovely account of her part, enabling the delicate harmonies introduced by the harp in the last bars of Act One to resound particularly meaningfully. Maestro Moody ensured that textures were transparent even when Puccini’s orchestration was at its most robust, and in climaxes he shaped waves of sound upon which the principals could sail rather walls of din against which they must compete. At the start of Act Three, Maestro Moody’s chosen tempi seemed too slow to sustain the volatile dramatic progression of the act, but the atypical honesty with which the passions interplayed, particularly in Mimì’s ‘Addio senza rancor,’ ultimately justified the conductor’s speeds. There were countless moments of eloquence in Maestro Moody’s leadership and no traces of routine. Of how many conductors’ performances of La bohème anywhere in the world can that be said?
Insightfully directed by Crystal Manich, the production—on loan from Charlotte’s Opera Carolina—has much in common with the Metropolitan Opera’s legendary Franco Zeffirelli Bohème: realized on a considerably smaller scale, of course, NCO’s production highlighted several specific details but never lost its focus on the essential elements of the plot as Zeffirelli’s production does, especially in the famously gargantuan presentation of Act Two. The most touching element of the production was having Marcello remain on stage alone as the curtain fell on Act Three, clutching one of Musetta’s discarded gloves after she has rushed off in a fury. It was a simple action but a moving choice that intensified the heartbreak of the scene and the sense of loss that hovers over La bohème even in lighthearted moments. Sets, costumes, and lighting all placed the action precisely where Puccini’s imagination intended, and fine acting by every individual on the stage crafted a performance that honored traditions without being mindlessly adherent to them. However, it was somewhat strange that Mimì entered in Act Three from without rather than within the Barrière d’Enfer and that she and Rodolfo departed via a similar route at the act’s end: perhaps they followed Violetta’s and Alfredo’s example and rented a love nest in the suburbs.
Tenor Wade Henderson was a charming Parpignol, the voice slender but distinct. It was regrettable, even with the mostly unobtrusive and well-managed amplification (achieved via microphones placed on the lip of the stage), that Parpignol’s first lines were delivered when Mr. Henderson was so far from the microphones’ reach. Sean Currlin and Tom Keefe did well by their duties as the Sergeant and Customs Officer. Kurt Melges differentiated his Benoît and Alcindoro handily; so handily, in fact, that the parts seemed to be taken by different singers. Mr. Melges sang strongly in both rôles.
Audiences are often willing to forgive poor singing of Schaunard’s and Colline’s music if Mimì and Rodolfo are capably sung, but this performance fielded a phenomenal pair of singers as the musician and the philosopher. An amiable presence from his first entrance, John Orduña’s account of Schaunard’s unique manner of earning money for his Christmas Eve revelries was genuinely funny. His high spirits were infectious, and the warm glow of his voice shone in every scene in which he appeared. The breathless sorrow and shock with which Mr. Orduña’s Schaunard realized that Mimì was dead were wrenching. Colline was sung by Soloman Howard with a superbly solid, velvety bass voice. He looked the ‘bear’ who has never visited a barber to the life, and his philosophical musings were uttered with perfect comedic timing and smooth, rolling tone. Colline’s farewell to his coat in Act Four, ‘Vecchia zimarra,’ two minutes that cannot pass quickly enough in many performances of La bohème, was sung so beautifully and sincerely that it became one of the emotional zeniths of the performance. For once, Puccini’s reprise of the principal theme from ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in the opera’s final moments did not seem quite so bizarre.
The ringing masculinity of Troy Cook’s baritone voice was nothing short of ideal for Marcello’s music. From his ‘Questo mar rosso’ to his ‘Coraggio,’ this was an unusually thoughtful Marcello, one whose capitulation to Musetta’s seduction in Act Two actually managed to be touching and whose entreaty to Mimì to not make a public scene before the tavern in Act Three was born of concern for her rather than any calculated effort at keeping up appearances. The duet with Mimì in Act Three was phrased with finesse, and the quiet melancholy of Mr. Cook’s reaction to Musetta’s departure in the final moments of the act was intensely moving. So, too, was this Marcello’s response to Mimì’s death: it was obvious that he loved Mimì nearly as much as Rodolfo loved her, and the pain of his sadness leapt from the stage into the hearts of the audience. Having the full tessitura of the rôle in his voice, Mr. Cook never faltered, musically or dramatically, and he was an elegant, effortless Marcello who inspired affection and provided total satisfaction without ever seeming to consciously try to do so. His Musetta, soprano Jacqueline Echols, partnered him with exquisite qualities of her own. Vocal beauty in Musetta’s music has become rare, but Ms. Echols’s voice shimmered. Never harsh or brassy, her timbre was plush and attractive, and she, too, was in absolute possession of every note required by her music. Ms. Echols’s ‘Quando me’n vo’’ was as much a colorful statement of Musetta’s free-willed credo as a concerted showpiece, and she proved the rare waltzing Musetta who charmed rather than annoyed in the number. Her decision to leave Marcello in Act Three was reached in exasperation rather than true discontent, and the very subtle subtext of her reunion with Marcello in Act Four, tragically facilitated by the dying Mimì, was artfully wrought by both Ms. Echols and Mr. Cook: the desperate joy of their reconnection made the sting of Rodolfo’s imminent loss of Mimì all the more devastating. Musetta’s prayer for Mimì to recover from her illness was raptly sung, and the outpouring of sisterly concern for Mimì confirmed that the consumptive girl’s silk flowers had also taken root in Musetta’s heart. Like Carmen, Musetta is too frequently played as either a slut or a saint when, at her core, she is neither. She is a spirited girl who prefers diamonds and silk to rhinestones and cotton, but there is abundant goodness in her, no matter how diligently she tries to mask it with coquetry. Musetta’s goodness took flight in Ms. Echols’s performance, which benefitted from vocalism as assured, glamorous, and alluring as could be hoped for in the part, and she and Mr. Cook made a pair of lovers secondary only in the sense that the composer gave them less to sing.
Eric Barry’s Rodolfo was a disarmingly playful bohemian, an easygoing but openhearted poet. The mock seriousness with which he sacrificed his newly-written play to the flames elicited well-earned laughter from the audience, and the moonlit wonderment with which he greeted Mimì was endearing. Mr. Barry’s sunny, admirably even voice was occasionally difficult to hear in Acts One and Two, but there were no impediments to hearing and appreciating his singing of ‘Che gelida manina,’ which he caressed with poetic phrasing, vowel sounds placed ideally on the breath, and crowned with an exciting sustained top note. He rightly preferred the harmony of Puccini’s written E-natural at the end of Act One, resisting the frequently-indulged temptation to interpolate a top C in unison with Mimì. Mr. Barry came into his own in a stirringly-sung account of Act Three, his feigned jealousy as transparent as Marcello declares it to be, but the vocal pinnacle of his performance was the duet with Marcello in Act Four, ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni.’ He and Mr. Cook exuded loneliness and regret without seeming like manic-depressive saps, and their mutual revelations of their secret souvenirs of Mimì and Musetta were sweetly bashful. Mr. Barry’s Rodolfo seemed actually to believe that Mimì would recover from her illness, and the spontaneity of his realization that she was dead was gripping. Throughout the performance, Mr. Barry’s secure, slightly nasal singing gave great pleasure, his top As and B-flats firm and ringing. He had in Angela Fout’s Mimì an uncomplicated but thoughtful girl with whom any poet might fall in love. Her first entrance was slightly aloof, and in ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ the lovely soprano could not quite manage the top notes with the softness and tenderness requested by Puccini, but the prevailing security of her intonation was rewarding. Ms. Fout’s singing was impressive in Mimì’s contributions to Act Two, including a ravishing top A in the ‘Quando me’n vo’’ ensemble. After the interval, however, Ms. Fout seemed transformed: entering in Act Three with the sound of death already in her voice, she sang arrestingly, the pair of top B-flats in the scene with Marcello flung out with abandon. Her ‘Addio senza rancor’ was shaped with the certain hand of a master sculptor, with the climactic top B-flat again a gleaming starburst of sound. Here and in Act Four, Ms. Fout’s piano singing took wing. At her entrance in Act Four, vitality was already drained from her timbre, and she was obviously a Mimì more cognizant than most of her impending death. This was a woman come to die among those she loved, and her heartfelt recollections of happy memories seemed intended more to comfort Rodolfo than to revive her own failing spirits. She was a Mimì who, rather than dying the agonized death of a consumptive, simply ceased to live, her very modest life having been spent and ultimately fulfilled by having loved. What so many performances fail to portray is that, for all that one is a poet and the other poetry, Rodolfo and Mimì are profoundly simple people, worrying not about literary conceits or fashion trends but about paying the rent, surviving the cold, and having food on the table. Singing with palpable youth and freshness, Mr. Barry and Ms. Fout created a couple too much in love to notice tragedy until it had claimed them.
Opera in Raleigh is hardly expected to equal the standards encountered in New York, Chicago, or Houston, but how magnificent it is when such expectations are confounded! Virtually every opera company in the world has a memorable production of La bohème in its history, through which great singers have come and gone. Adapting Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on government, it can be argued that the best Bohèmes are those that endeavor least to be innovative or searching. The emotions depicted in La bohème are not new: they are those of Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ilia and Idamante, Tristan and Isolde. The best Bohèmes are those in which conductors and singers find in Puccini’s score every component needed to construct a memorable performance, without idiosyncrasies, impositions, and extrapolations; in short, a Bohème like this one. In this age of eroding civic support for the Performing Arts and deteriorating Arts education, North Carolina Opera achieved the extraordinary—beating the bigger opera companies at their own game by producing in Raleigh a production of La bohème that would gladden hearts in London, Vienna, or Milan.
(left to right) Tenor Eric Barry as Rodolfo, soprano Angela Fout as Mimì, and baritone Troy Cook as Marcello in Act Three of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen La bohème at North Carolina Opera [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © Curtis Brown Photography/North Carolina Opera]