10 February 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (A. Cofield, B. Gulley, D. Scofield, W. Morgan, T. Putnam, G. Palermo; Opera Orlando, 7 February 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (center) and members of PHANTASMAGORIA in Opera Orlando's February 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del West [sung in a new English translation by David Scott Marley] — Amy Cofield (Minnie), Ben Gulley (Dick Johnson), Daniel Scofield (Jack Rance), Wesley Morgan (Nick), Tyler Putnam (Ashby), Gloria Palermo (Wowkle), Torlef Borsting (Sonora), Chevalier Lovett (Bello), Brent Doucette (Trin), E Mani Cadet (Harry), Benjamin Ludwig (Joe), Jacob Pence (Sid), Matthew Fackler (Un postiglione), José-Manuel López (José Castro, Billy Jackrabbit); Ross Monroe Winter (violin), Adam Fimbres (double bass); Robin Jensen, piano and conductor [Grant Preisser, Technical Director; Alison Reid, Costume Designer; Michelle Engleman, Production and Stage Manager; Amber Rae Sandora, Hair and Makeup Designer; Alan Bruun, Stage Director; Opera Orlando, Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom, Orlando, Florida, USA; Friday, 7 February 2020]

Few physical settings are as important to an opera’s drama than California’s Sierra Nevada range and the miners’ camp nestled amidst the peaks are to Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. It is significant that, when giving the opera its title, Puccini retained the word ‘West’ from the story’s source, David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West, there being no word in as nuanced a language as Italian that could relay the essence of the American West. Born in San Francisco in 1853, Belasco was a product of the inimitable, untranslatable West, his literary and theatrical careers shaped by formative exposure to the unspoiled landscapes and sometimes turbulent communities of the American frontier. The opera’s three acts respectively set in the Polka Saloon, Minnie’s mountainside abode, and a grove of California’s emblematic redwoods, Fanciulla occupies a realm that is as much a state of mind as it is a geographical location. Though engendering site-specific challenges to counterbalance the advantages of the setting, Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West brought Belasco’s and Puccini’s California to downtown Orlando’s Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom with the kind of engrossing atmosphere that even the most picturesque traditional stagings can only approximate.

Written for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, La fanciulla del West received its first performance on 10 December 1910. Conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuting Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson, and Pasquale Amato as Rance, Fanciulla was both the MET’s first world première and the first opera with an American subject staged by the company. Such was the dedication to scenic and histrionic verisimilitude that the inaugural production was painstakingly overseen by Belasco, who by the time of Fanciulla’s première was established as one of Broadway’s most savvy theatrical writers and directors. The composer spoke virtually no English, but it was Belasco’s adaptation of a short story by John Luther Long that inspired Puccini to transform the tragic liaison between Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton into Madama Butterfly. Puccini recognized in the betrayal felt by Minnie, the pure-hearted but practical proprietress of the Polka Saloon, when she learns that the man she knows as Dick Johnson of Sacramento is the fugitive outlaw Ramerrez the same emotional potency that captivated audiences who heard Madama Butterfly.

Aside from its snigger-inducing Americanisms, which likely seemed markedly less ridiculous 110 years ago, the Italian libretto created by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini maintained an unusually high degree of fidelity to its source. Complementing the innovative choice of locations for the production, Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla utilized a new English translation by David Scott Marley, the goal of which was to minimize the divide between the opera’s text and Belasco’s play. Vital to the success of this commendable ambition was the consistent clarity of the singers’ diction, not least in passages of dialect. [In this review, the Italian texts of principal numbers are used for the benefit of readers who do not yet know Marley’s English translation.] Ramerrez’s hacienda-society upbringing was manifested, as it is in Belasco’s work, in a more formal, Romanticized style of utterance. [It was interesting to hear Johnson address Sonora in Act Three as ‘Soñora,’ subtly closing the chasm between Ramerrez’s and the miners’ cultures.] For reasons of time and logistics necessitated by physically relocating the audience during the intervals, the Act One sequence of Jake Wallace’s ballad and the homesick Jim Larkens’s departure from Cloudy Mountain was omitted. His fellow miners’ collection of funds to finance Larkens’s homeward journey is a crucial display of the compassion that facilitates the opera’s non-fatal conclusion, but Opera Orlando’s miners nonetheless palpably conveyed their affection for Minnie, rendering their change of heart towards Johnson in the opera’s final scene wholly convincing.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]The West, down South: the cast of Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Scenically, this production of Fanciulla was as engrossing as any that an aficionado who loves this score could hope to encounter. The grandeur of the stunningly beautiful Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House, in which Acts One and Three were staged, contrasted pointedly with the intimate setting for Act Two in Ceviche Ballroom, the latter evocatively illuminated by oil lamps. The aptness of the location for Act One was undeniable, but the glimmering wood of the saloon’s interior was also appropriate for the sylvan backdrop to Act Three. In Act Two, the seating arrangement situated the audience on all sides of the interior of Minnie’s cabin, begetting an immediacy that productions in opera houses cannot achieve. Feeling rather than merely seeing and hearing the awful thud when Johnson fainted after being shot made the audience participants in the drama. So, too, did the clever, brilliantly-executed theatrics of steampunk performance troupe Phantasmagoria, their eerily seductive motions making them seem like ghosts who benevolently haunted the Polka.

Stage director Alan Bruun infused this production with a naturalness that pervaded both movement and music. Interruptions of the organic flow of everyday life in Cloudy Mountain—events like Sid’s cheating at cards, the arrivals of Ashby and the post rider, and the capture of Ramerrez’s associate José Castro—were thus all the more jarring. Bruun’s concept emphasized Minnie’s innate goodness without attempting to canonize her. The girl’s manipulation of the outcome of the poker game in Act Two was unmistakably out of character, but this Minnie knew that survival in a mining camp sometimes requires more than perfume and Psalms. Alison Reid’s costumes and Amber Rae Sandora’s hair and makeup were ideal, evoking California during the Gold Rush without inhibiting comfort, range of motion, or the mechanics of singing. In both of this production’s venues, technical director Grant Preisser, lighting designer Jon Whiteley, stage manager Michelle Engleman, and assistant stage manager Emily DeNardo faced unique challenges, particularly those created by the spaces’ sight lines and the proximity of the audience, but every problem was solved with intelligence and imagination.

Presiding from the piano, Opera Orlando’s Music and Education Director Robin Jensen both paced the performance and played marvelously—and, delightfully, she received a hearty ‘Hello, Robin!’ from the miners upon their first entrance  Her expert handling of Puccini’s Italianate but often strikingly Twentieth-Century writing was matched by the impeccable musicianship of violinist Ross Monroe Winter and bassist Adam Fimbres. Fanciulla, Il tabarro, and Turandot are arguably Puccini’s most modern and adventurously-orchestrated scores, and approaching an episode like the poker game that ends Act Two without a full orchestra, Puccini’s writing for which heightens the tension and makes audible the frantic beating of Minnie’s heart, was worrying. Perfectly suited to this Fanciulla’s setting, the playing of the instrumental ensemble alternated robustness with serenity, satisfying all of the score’s musical demands. Like the staging, Jensen’s musical direction exhibited sensitivity and sensibility that reflected total understanding of the story, the score, and the setting.

IN REVIEW: bass TYLER PUTNAM as Ashby (left) and baritone DANIEL SCOFIELD as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Saloon sentinels: bass Tyler Putnam as Ashby (left) and baritone Daniel Scofield as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

The cast assembled by Opera Orlando to portray the inhabitants of Cloudy Mountains provided an impressive survey of Florida’s native and adopted talent. Hailing from Winter Park, tenor E Mani Cadet sang strongly and sweetly as Harry, following the dictates of the score, and baritone Benjamin Ludwig represented his hometown of Orlando with an ably-sung, touching portrayal of Joe, whose interactions with Minnie were those of an adoring brother. Baritone and Opera Orlando Board of Directors member-at-large Chevalier Lovett was a Bello whose vocalism warranted the character’s name. Opera Orlando Studio Artists mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo and tenor Brent Doucette sang splendidly as Wowkle and Trin, the former offering a genuinely pious and beautiful account of her prayer at the start of Act Two, and a pair of Kentucky gentlemen, Jacob Pence as Sid and Happy and baritone Matthew Fackler as the post rider, acted and sang their parts charismatically.

The production’s lone native Californian, baritone José-Manuel López, depicted José Castro and Billy Jackrabbit with none of the silly and potentially offensive mannerisms that were once traditional in these rôles, and his voice is a fine instrument. Maine may never have been visited by the Wells Fargo stagecoaches that traversed the West, but bass Tyler Putnam lacked none of Ashby’s requisite vocal and histrionic swagger. [Another felicitous detail of Marley’s translation was Ashby’s tongue-in-cheek entreaty for Minnie to bank with Wells Fargo more often, sung by Putnam with deadpan seriousness.] The burnished timbre and flinty tones wielded by Hawaii-born baritone Torlef Borsting made Sonora an atypically well-matched foil for Jack Rance. [Unsurprisingly, the brooding Sheriff is also in Borsting’s repertoire.] The high standard of Borsting’s Sonora was perpetuated by Floridian tenor Wesley Morgan, whose handsomely-sung Nick—a rôle that needs but too seldom receives handsome singing—recalled portrayals by Piero de Palma and Paul Franke.

By pinning Jack Rance’s tin star to his waistcoat, baritone Daniel Scofield joined the brigade of memorable Sheriffs including Pasquale Amato, Tito Gobbi, Giangiacomo Guelfi, Anselmo Colzani, and Silvano Carroli. That Scofield is worthy of this illustrious company was evident from his first notes. Proposing a non-violent punishment for Sid’s cheating, conversing with Ashby about the search for the highwayman Ramerrez, or boldly declaring that Minnie would soon be Mrs. Rance, Scofield filled Cheyenne Saloon with rousing, virile tone, the character’s authority in this case not merely derived from his badge. This Rance was a conqueror, not a cajoler, but the baritone voiced ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie’ with competing passion and refinement. Rance’s awkward wooing of Minnie upended by Johnson’s arrival at the Polka and the posse’s errant pursuit of Ramerrez, Scofield projected the Sheriff’s frustration into every crevice of the saloon.

Minnie’s rejection having wounded his pride, the cruelty with which Scofield’s Rance tracked Ramerrez to Minnie’s cabin and tormented her with proof of Johnson’s deception was terrifying. Though repugnantly chauvinistic, Rance’s articulation of his desire for Minnie was discernibly sincere, and the desperation of his search for a glass with which to give Minnie a steadying drink of water when she feigned distress whilst extracting the winning hand from her bodice divulged that, in this consequential moment, he was concerned for her well-being. Accustomed to getting what he wants as a lawman, a gambler, and a lover, this Rance rushed out of Minnie’s cabin with the pulverizing energy of an avalanche after losing the fateful poker game.

The Rance who demanded Johnson’s immediate hanging in Act Three was a broken man. Scofield’s vocalism resounded with the raw pain of thwarted love. When Minnie appeared, insisting that Johnson’s life be spared, Rance’s scorn of the collective inability to defy a woman was aimed as much at himself as at the miners. In Scofield’s performance, Rance was reminiscent of the Wanderer in Act Three of Wagner’s Siegfried: his power overwhelmed, he sank into the shadows. Scofield’s voice shone brightly throughout the evening, however, and the depth of the baritone’s artistry was apparent in his nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of a character who too frequently becomes a caricature.

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (left) and tenor BEN GULLEY as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]A waltz at the Polka: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie (left) and tenor Ben Gulley as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Like his soprano and baritone colleagues in a performance of La fanciulla del West, the tenor who sings the rôle of the fugitive bandito Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson of Sacramento, not only faces the considerable demands of Puccini’s music but also contends with the reputations of acclaimed interpreters of past generations, most prominent amongst whom are Caruso, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, and Plácido Domingo. The singing of Opera Orlando’s Johnson, Ben Gulley, occasionally brought to mind the work of another expert Johnson, Gianfranco Cecchele, but Gulley’s portrayal of the reforming bandito relied upon no one’s instincts but his own.

Bounding into the Polka, asking to be introduced to the rascal who promised to ‘curl his hair’ for requesting water with his whiskey, Gulley’s Johnson reacted to seeing Minnie as though he had come face to face with the barrel of a six-shooter. An accomplished actor whose psychological transformations shown on his face, Gulley insightfully limned the evolution of Johnson’s emotions. The tenor ascended to the B5 at the beginning of the duet that ends Act One with freedom that few Johnsons past or present could equal. Gulley’s upper register was reliably exhilarating, having been blessed with much-coveted ping.

Observing Minnie in her lonely cabin instigated a new deluge of feeling in Johnson, depicted by Gulley with vocalism that at once gleamed with romantic ardor and shuddered with shame and doubt, and his correction of Minnie’s mispronunciation of Dante was affectionate rather than condescending. His true identity spitefully revealed by Rance, Johnson’s recounting of the circumstances of his criminal past was sung with anguish that only increased the focus of Gulley’s vocal emission. This Johnson’s flight from Minnie’s cabin was so abrupt that many people in the audience were visibly startled when the shot that felled him rang out.

Nursed back to health by Minnie, Johnson is captured by the Cloudy Mountain posse in Act Three, and his captors’ preparations to hang him give him the opportunity to sing the aria ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano.’ Jensen set a slow tempo for the number, and Gulley’s broad phrasing and galvanizing top B♭s justified the choice. The tenor’s singing in the opera’s final scene, as Minnie persuaded the miners to show mercy and reunited with Johnson, evinced an aura of wonder, his voicing of the liberated man’s thanks to his ‘brothers’ candidly articulating relief and gratitude. Confidently confronting the rôle’s many difficulties, Gulley was a Johnson who earned his pardon.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Winchester for the win: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

That soprano Amy Cofield was an exceptionally well-qualified Violetta in Opera Roanoke’s 2016 production of Verdi’s La traviata might suggest that Puccini’s strenuous music for Minnie is not ideal for her voice. Significantly, however, Gilda dalla Rizza (Puccini’s favorite Minnie and his first Magda in La rondine), Maria Caniglia, Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Maralin Niska, and Carol Neblett were all acclaimed as both Violetta and Minnie, and, difficult as it may be for listeners who are acquainted solely with her verismo performances to believe, even the inimitable Magda Olivero, a Minnie of almost frightening intensity, also included Violetta in her repertoire. In Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla, Cofield sang her first Minnie with meticulous adherence to Puccini’s instructions, never overextending her vocal resources. Disrupting a fight in the Polka with a shot from her rifle, this Minnie introduced herself with good-natured sternness that quickly gave way to poignant tenderness in her exchanges with the miners. It is only in their brief moments with Minnie that the miners’ individual personalities emerge, and Cofield differentiated her responses to the miners accordingly.

Minnie was indisputably unsettled by Rance’s declaration of love, but Cofield’s performance intimated that the girl's reaction is prompted as much by embarrassment as by annoyance. The soprano’s account of ‘Laggiù nel Soledad’ was beautiful of tone and phrasing, building to a sublime top C. Minnie’s assurance faltered when Johnson strode into the Polka, her memories of their meeting on the road from Monterrey reawakening unfamiliar feelings. Perhaps no other character in opera delineates the distinction between Platonic and romantic loves more meaningfully than Minnie, and the fervor of a sensitive young woman falling in love permeated Cofield’s vocalism in the scene with Johnson that ends Act One.

Anxiously anticipating Johnson’s visit to her humble cabin in Act Two, Cofield’s Minnie embodied the nervous exuberance of new love. The guileless delicacy of her singing in reply to Johnson’s impassioned proclamations yielded to the euphoric top C with which Minnie welcomed her first kiss. Their bliss disturbed by the miners’ pursuit of Ramerrez, the shock of learning that the man hidden in her home is the loathed outlaw exploded in Minnie’s denunciation of her lover, Cofield’s vocalism seething with crestfallen fury. Her guilt at sending Johnson out into the night to face Rance’s wrath was obvious in this Minnie’s despondent refusal to abandon her wounded paramour.

The soprano’s fearless singing during the poker game allied with incisive acting to effect a riveting performance of the scene. Here and in Act Three, Cofield’s portrayal accentuated Minnie’s inner conflict between her devotion to Cloudy Mountain and her duty to herself. She did not harangue when reminding the miners of the lessons of forgiveness and forbearance learned in their Bible studies, but her vocal fortitude avowed that her Minnie would not hesitate to win Johnson’s freedom with her pistol. Her voice utterly secure from the bottom of the stave to her radiant top Bs and Cs, Cofield sang Minnie’s music valiantly and attractively, but the cornerstone of her performance was making Minnie’s soul as beguiling as her song.

Before entrepreneurs arrived with citrus saplings, resort blueprints, and dreams of theme parks, Orlando was a quiet settlement in colonial Florida’s cattle country. Never a rowdy cowtown like Fort Worth and Wichita or a boomtown like Virginia City, Orlando overcame the decline of the cattle industry and fabricated its own gold mines. Orlando’s prosperity in the Twenty-First Century is conspicuous in the vitality of the city’s Arts community, in which Opera Orlando’s rôle continues to grow more preeminent. Staging La fanciulla del West tests any company’s artistic resources, and audiences’ responses to a taxing work like Fanciulla appraise the viability of opera. Both as a worthwhile performance of Puccini’s magnificent score and as a gauge of Orlando’s thriving Arts scene, Opera Orlando’s sensational Fanciulla struck gold.

04 February 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (S. Kybalova, A. Smith, C. R. Lovelace, G. Guagliardo, P. Morgan, K. Karris, D. Hartmann, D. Gillard; Opera Carolina, 23 January 2020)

IN REVIEW: the case of Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeStefanna Kybalova (Mimì), Adam Smith (Rodolfo), Corey Raquel Lovelace (Musetta), Giovanni Guagliardo (Marcello), Peter Morgan (Colline), Keith Harris (Schaunard), Donald Hartmann (Benoît, Alcindoro), Darius Gillard (Parpignol); Opera Carolina Chorus and Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Aldo Tarabella, director; Peter Dean Beck, scenic designer; Michael Baumgarten, lighting designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 23 January 2020]

Amidst multitudes of mentions of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Carmen, polling opera aficionados about the works that provided their first experiences of the art form inevitably yields myriads of memories of La bohème. First performed at Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1896, Giacomo Puccini’s adaptation of ideas taken from Henri Murger’s 1851 collection of stories Scènes de la vie de bohème was soon regarded as an embodiment of post-Verdi Italian opera, the score’s melodic abundance and unapologetic sentimentality—the quality for which it is now sometimes derided—appealing to listeners of all levels of musical sophistication, whether or not they admit it. Though its première in Venice, fifteen months after the first staging of Puccini’s La bohème, was warmly received, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera on the same subject was largely—and unjustly, as it is a score with many merits—forgotten within a quarter-century. Not even those listeners for whose refined palates the opera is too bittersweet a confection can deny the uninterrupted marketability of Puccini’s Bohème; and that, for those who respond to its emotional stimuli, a good performance of La bohème can be an affecting, memorable experience.

Opera companies that plan to perform La bohème should be required to adhere to an oath similar to Verdi’s mandate when asked to sanction the interpolation of top Cs in Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore that, if ventured, they be good ones: if Bohème is to be staged, let the staging be good. With scenic designs by Peter Dean Beck that were often reminiscent of much-loved Covent Garden and Metropolitan Opera stagings by John Copley and Franco Zeffirelli, Opera Carolina’s Bohème was in some ways, not the least of which was its visual appeal, a tremendous success. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs followed the dictates of the score, entrances and exits, characters’ interactions, and dramatic momentum highlighted in accordance with cues in the music. Though a pale-hued suit in Act Four had Schaunard looking as though he wandered in from a cricket match in E. M. Forster’s England, the costumes by A.T. Jones and Sons were attractively appropriate, illustrating the social divisions that shape the opera’s narrative. Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup were unmistakably the work of an artist whose well-honed eye for attractive appearances is complemented by respect for the physical act of singing.

His staging avowed that director Aldo Tarabella’s affection for La bohème is genuine and profound. Much of the production heeded the composer’s and librettists’ instructions, engendering a traditional but never tired rendering of the piece, yet Tarabella’s good intentions were sometimes undermined by efforts to enliven the staging with idiosyncratic details. Any claim that Puccini’s bohemians are morally wholesome people is belied by the rapidity with which they fall in and out of love, but having a scantily-clad woman slinking out of Rodolfo’s bed whilst he contrived to hide her from Marcello in Act One damaged the drama’s emotional impact by reducing the plausibility of Rodolfo’s devotion to Mimì. Also problematic was Schaunard’s and Colline’s mockery during Rodolfo’s introduction of Mimì in Act Two: though undeniably amusing, this distorted a moment of tenderness in which the sincerity of Rodolfo’s burgeoning love for Mimì should receive the director’s—and, by extension, the audience’s—full attention. The transformation of the pantomimed swordplay in Act Four into a jousting match was clever, but why would men living in poverty, with no known connections to children, have hobby horses on hand in their sparsely-furnished flat? None of these deviations from the score was ruinous, and they may have brought the opera’s essence nearer to the spirit of Murger’s stories. The effectiveness of an otherwise pleasing production was nonetheless jeopardized.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Festaioli in città: the cast of Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor James Meena solidified his standing as an interpreter of Puccini’s operas with his leadership of the company’s productions of Turandot (2015) and La fanciulla del West (2017). During his time in Charlotte, Meena has conducted music in vastly different styles, reliably identifying and focusing on the unique artistic atmosphere of each piece. There was much to enjoy in his pacing of this performance of La bohème, but there were also atypical lapses in coordination between stage and pit. On the whole, the Opera Carolina Orchestra played accurately and eloquently, their efforts affected by few glaring mistakes, but the orchestral excellence that often distinguishes Opera Carolina productions was missing from this performance. Intonation, rhythmic tautness, and precision of ensemble improved markedly after a conspicuously unsettled first act, but, like the orchestra’s playing, Meena’s conducting lacked its accustomed authority. This was an ingratiating, engaging Bohème, but it only intermittently benefited from Meena’s proven capacity for transcending conventional interpretations of Puccini’s music.

Vocally, this was also a thoroughly professional and emotionally effective but variable Bohème. Especially as the merry-making citizens of Paris in Act Two but also as the street sweepers and milkmaids who arrive at the city gate at the beginning of Act Three, Opera Carolina’s choristers of all ages sang splendidly, their training producing excellent balances among the voices. The gentlemen who portrayed the sentinels at the gate were not identified in the playbill, but they sang well. Tenor Darius Gillard coped courageously with being harangued by over-eager children as the toy vendor Parpignol, but his voice did not project as strongly as his stage presence.

Returning to the stage that has hosted some of his wittiest characterizations, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann again exhibited how meaningfully a performance can be enriched by featuring artists of stature in supporting rôles. There are instances in which singers’ performances of the part compel audiences to regret the bohemians’ decision to reluctantly grant their landlord Benoît an audience, but Hartmann’s vibrant, strongly-sung portrayal delighted despite being subjected to intrusively unnecessary stage business. His still-evolving stagecraft was no less effective in his vivid portrayal of Musetta’s deep-pocketed suitor Alcindoro. Bringing the curtain down on Act Two with a lithely hilarious depiction of Alcindoro’s fainting reaction to being gifted the bill for the bohemians’ feast, Hartmann upstaged even his glamorous Musetta.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Benoît (far right) and the bohemians in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Problemi alla porta: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Benoît (far right) intrudes upon the Bohemians’ festivities in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Baritone Keith Harris was an exuberant but serious Schaunard who seemed elated by his own cleverness whilst recounting his successful conspiracy to assassinate a noisy parrot and truly exasperated when he observed that his friends were ignoring his tale. Harris’s firm, even-toned vocalism was always audible in Act Two, but his finest work came in Act Four, when his open-hearted but subtle depiction of Schaunard’s love for Mimì and his friends conveyed absolute sincerity. Bass-baritone Peter Morgan’s Colline was also a man whose affection for his fellow bohemians was apparent, and his good-natured philosophizing was determined but never dull. Morgan’s voice had greater impact at the top of the range than below the stave, but he was a rare Colline who sang his much-maligned ‘farewell to a coat’ in Act Four, ‘Vecchia zimarra,’ handsomely and unaffectedly. Both Harris and Morgan intensified the sadness of the opera’s final moments. From her labored final entrance, Mimì’s impending death looms in the music, yet, returning to the garret after leaving Mimì and Rodolfo alone, Harris’s Schaunard was wrenchingly shocked to find Mimì already dead, and the reaction of Morgan’s Colline to the grim discovery shared this heartbreaking emotional candor.

Previous appearances in the Queen City have garnered particular appreciation amongst Charlotte audiences for soprano Corey Raquel Lovelace, and her sultry but honorable Musetta in Opera Carolina’s Bohème validated that esteem. Musetta makes one of opera’s most high-spirited entrances: Lovelace’s Musetta seized the opportunity to dazzle those around her, not least the humble Mimì. Alongside Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s arias in Act One, Musetta’s ‘Quando m’en vo’ soletta’ is one of the pieces that Bohème audiences anxiously await. Lovelace’s performance justified and fulfilled expectation, but the number was only a small component of her characterization. Musetta’s reconciliation with Marcello at the ensemble’s end was unusually endearing, and the joviality with which the bill for the evening’s celebrating was left for Alcindoro disclosed no hostility.

There was no shortage of vitriol in the exchanges with Marcello in Act Three, but Lovelace evinced that this viper of a Musettta was non-venomous. Leading the dying Mimì back to the scene of her former happiness in Act Four, this Musetta was solely a kind friend. The futile prayer for Mimì’s recovery, ‘Madonna benedetta,’ was urgently and beautifully sung, Lovelace’s timbre shimmering. It is not often that a Musetta piques curiosity about her future, but Lovelace’s Musetta earned hope for her prosperity. She portrayed Musetta as the kind of woman who, whether gracing the arm of a duke or dancing with peasants in a rowdy tavern, might also be found quietly laying flowers in Mimì’s memory.

IN REVIEW: soprano COREY RAQUEL LOVELACE as Musetta (center left) and bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Alcindoro (center right) in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]La donna in rosso: soprano Corey Raquel Lovelace as Musetta (center left) and bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Alcindoro (center right) in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The Marcello of baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was a pensive, at times almost avuncular figure whose artistic frustration was a symptom of his restless passion for Musetta. His jocular conversations with his friends in Act One betrayed a persistent distraction, and there was no doubt from the moment of Musetta’s arrival at Café Momus in Act Two that she was the cause of his discontent. The lovers’ reunion was therefore all the more believable. Guagliardo sang elegantly in the scene with Mimì at the beginning of Act Three, the voice growing darker and stronger as the severity of the girl’s illness was disclosed. His compassion for Mimì fueled the empathetic but stern reproaches in the subsequent dialogue with Rodolfo. The baritone rousingly sparred with his Musetta as Mimì and Rodolfo sang of the dissolution of their relationship, and he comforted Musetta tenderly in Act Four. The zenith of Guagliardo’s performance was his depiction of Marcello’s despair in the duet with Rodolfo: attempting to disguise his anguish, he was suddenly overwhelmed, surrendering not to Gigli-esque sobs but to silence. Guagliardo was not on his best form, vocally, but his shortcomings plausibly and often touchingly mirrored those of the character.

The youthfully athletic Rodolfo of British tenor Adam Smith revealed this gifted singer as a well-qualified successor to the legacy of his too-little-remembered countryman Charles Craig. Possessing a rich, masculine timbre and an upper register with exciting, well-managed squillo, Smith promises to join Craig in the sparse ranks of British tenors with special affinity for Italian repertoire. In Act One of Opera Carolina’s La bohème, he was the ebullient, libidinous poet to the life, feeding his manuscript to the flames with sham solemnity. With Mimì came new maturity, and Smith voiced ‘Che gelida manina’ with burgeoning wonder. He valiantly sang the aria in Puccini’s original key: a catch in the voice on the ascent compromised the security of his top C, but this was but a brief blemish in a fine account of the music. The soaring lines of ‘O soave fanciulla’ suited him perfectly, and Smith delivered them with panache.

Smith overcame Schaunard’s and Colline‘s silliness in Act Two to sensitively praise Mimì as the embodiment of poetry, and the tenor’s dusky timbre lent gravity to Rodolfo’s warning about his jealousy. Smith met the fearsome requirements of Act Three with unflappable technical acumen, producing the feared diminuendo on top A♭ on ‘alla stagion dei fior’ superbly and ably partnering first Marcello and then Mimì in their duets. Complementing Guagliardo‘s tasteful singing, Smith exercised vocal and dramatic restraint in the Act Four duet. His portrayal of Rodolfo in the opera’s final scene was not without lacrimose passages, but there was subtlety here, too. It was not a perfect evening for Smith, but his was the sort of performance that reminds the listener of how uninteresting and unsatisfying perfection can be.

IN REVIEW: soprano STEFANNA KYBALOVA as Mimì (left) and tenor ADAM SMITH as Rodolfo (right) in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Insieme fino alla primavera: soprano Stefanna Kybalova as Mimì (left) and tenor Adam Smith as Rodolfo (right) in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

When the frail, introspective Mimì of Bulgarian soprano Stefanna Kybalova knocked at her neighbors’ door in Act One, the prevailing mood of this Bohème was instantaneously altered, as Puccini’s music indicates that it should be, from one of puerile ribaldry to delicate intimacy. Playful but unmistakably unwell, her Mimì shyly acclimated herself to Rodolfo’s environment, imparting the joy of simply being noticed. Kybalova phrased ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ with innate comprehension of the conversational flow of the music. Projection of the soprano’s upper register was sometimes effortful, but her intonation remained true. Her smile as she took Rodolfo’s arm in their duet shone more brightly than all the lights of Paris.

The business with the bonnet in Act Two can be cloying, but Kybalova’s acting eschewed artifice. Her Mimì was genuinely awed by Musetta, though she recognized immediately that the frost between Musetta and Marcello was rapidly thawing. Seeking Marcello at the tavern by the city gate in Act Three, Mimì’s infirmity was advancing mercilessly, but, listening as Rodolfo told Marcello of his guilt and angst at his poverty hastening the deterioration of Mimì’s health, the frankness with which Kybalova uttered ‘Ahimè morir!’ was devastating. This Mimì’s voicing of ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore’ expressed the meaning of the text with astonishing clarity: devoid of bitterness, her singing was suffused with exhausted acceptance of the inevitable. The girlish sweetness of Mimì’s greetings to her friends in Act Four softened the blow of a perceptible finality. Kybalova’s singing throughout the final scene was exquisite, her portrayal of the young woman who was so often alone in life transfigured by Mimì meeting death surrounded by love. Her final act of love for Rodolfo was dying whilst he was turned away, sparing him the trauma of witnessing her last breath. Her characterization always guided by the text, Kybalova’s Mimì recalled portrayals by Raina Kabaivanska, Renata Scotto, and Diana Soviero, but this was, above all, an uncommonly faithful incarnation of Puccini’s Mimì.

Audiences sometimes seem surprised to learn that ticket sales constitute a small fraction of opera companies’ budgets. Nevertheless, as governmental funding for the Performing Arts becomes ever more imperiled, selling tickets is an integral component of opera’s continued survival. Opera’s cognoscenti groan at the prospect of a production of La bohème, lamenting the lack of attention granted to lesser-known, infrequently-performed works and contemporary music. A Twenty-First-Century concertgoer rarely purchases a ticket for a Rolling Stones concert with the hope of hearing overlooked B-sides and new material, however. In opera, adventurous programming deservedly earns plaudits, but performing beloved operas like La bohème enables the exploration of other repertoire. Opera Carolina’s 2016 production of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, the opera’s first fully-staged presentation by a professional company in the United States, established Charlotte as a welcoming, supportive home for bold repertory choices. Staging La bohème is almost always a safe choice for opera companies, but Opera Carolina’s production of Puccini’s perennially-popular paean to ill-fated love affirmed that safe choices can be wonderfully rewarding.