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.