31 January 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (L. Cesaroni, S. Quinn, L. Hernandez, S. Kessler Dooley, A. Lau, T. Murray, D. Hartmann, W. Henderson, J. Cortes, F. Bunter; North Carolina Opera, 28 January 2022)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Alcindoro (center) and the company of North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeLucia Cesaroni (Mimì), Scott Quinn (Rodolfo), Shannon Kessler Dooley (Musetta), Levi Hernandez (Marcello), Timothy Murray (Schaunard), Adam Lau (Colline), Donald Hartmann (Benoît, Alcindoro), Wade Henderson (Parpignol), Jacob Cortes (Un sergente dei doganieri), Forrest Bunter (Un doganiere); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joseph Mechavich, conductor [Brenna Corner, Stage Director; Steven C. Kemp, Set Designer; Ross Kolman, Lighting Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designer; North Carolina Opera, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 28 January 2022]

When opera companies announce seasons that include productions of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, some observers disgustedly ask, ‘Why do they choose to again perform La bohème?’ The answer to that question is very simple: audiences buy tickets for performances of La bohème. Paralleling Abraham Lincoln’s famed remark about the uncertainties of politicians deceiving their constituents, La bohème will never lure all potential patrons to every performances, but some aficionados would never purposefully miss a staging of the piece, while virtually all operaphiles can sometimes be coaxed by the participation of a favored singer or conductor into attending a performance of La bohème. Why, then, does Puccini’s adaptation of Henri Murger’s 1851 tome Scènes de la vie de bohème continue to appeal so strongly to audiences 126 years after the opera’s première at Teatro Regio di Torino? Luigi Illica’s and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto is irrefutably a work of theatrical savvy, but would even the most dedicated poet allege that purchasing an opera ticket is motivated by a desire to extol the words? What inspires audiences’ faith in La bohème’s capacity to satisfy, whether it is being experienced for the second or the seventieth time?

North Carolina Opera’s new production of La bohème, the first staging of the opera in Raleigh since 2014, offered persuasive answers to these questions, presenting the opera with unapologetic but unexaggerated sentimentality that gave new life to the opera’s familiar tragedy. Steven C. Kemp’s set designs placed Puccini’s bohemians in recognizably Parisian surroundings without subjecting them to fairy-tale over-romanticisation and anachronistic views of well-known landmarks. The costumes, originally created for Sarasota Opera, and Martha Ruskai’s astute wig and makeup designs also suited the people who wore them, physically and dramatically, attractively reflecting the era in which the opera is set but illustrating the poverty with which Puccini’s protagonists contend. In Ross Kolman’s lighting, the frigid garret and the streets of Paris, teeming with holiday revelry in Act Two and slowly awakening in Act Three, glowed with natural ambience, in which spotlighting enabled the audience to easily follow the opera’s narrative. This production contradicted the notion that traditional stagings unfailingly lack imagination and novelty. The opera’s extensive performance history demonstrates that La bohème can succeed in many guises. Rather than inventing new contexts for the librettists’ adaptation of Murger’s story, this Bohème satisfied by lifting the characters directly from the pages of Puccini’s score.

An abundance of small but significant details distinguished Brenna Corner’s direction of this production, her concentration on interactions amongst characters and their environment deployed with subtlety and intelligence. Marcello observing that the handkerchief dropped by Mimį after a coughing fit in Act Three was stained with blood was a poignant sign of the direness of her illness, and the simple act of Colline extinguishing a candle as Schaunard perceived that Mimì was dead symbolized the darkness that descended upon the bohemians’ community with the loss of Mimì. Starkly effective, too, was the muffler, only recently procured by Musetta and given in Rodolfo’s name, falling with wrenching finality from Mimì’s lifeless hands. Corner delivered the expected tumult in Act Two but avoided the frenetic business of productions like Franco Zeffirelli’s famed staging for the Metropolitan Opera, in which individual characters can be lost in the hubbub. Corner’s work was shaped by intuitive musicality, her creativity spurred by the score.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor SCOTT QUINN as Rdolfo, baritone LEVI HERNANDEZ as Marcello, bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Benoît, baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Schaunard, and bass ADAM LAU as Colline in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Ecco il padrone: (from left to right) tenor Scott Quinn as Rodolfo, baritone Levi Hernandez as Marcello, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Benoît, baritone Timothy Murray as Schaunard, and bass Adam Lau as Colline in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Sadly, conductor Joseph Mechavich’s comprehensive knowledge of and respect for Puccini’s music qualities that were manifested in every bar of the performance, were undermined by orchestral playing that lacked both accuracy and polish. Singers’ timing was frequently disrupted by mistakes from the pit, two of the most regrettable of which were incorrect entries by the harp that spoiled the atmosphere in Mimì’s Act One aria and her subsequent duet with Rodolfo. The coordination between stage and pit disintegrated markedly as Act Two progressed, the ensemble of children’s voices, chorus, and principals making its customary effect despite nearly devolving into chaos. Nevertheless, moments of beauty, accuracy, and true dramatic power were bountiful. Winter weather having wreaked havoc during the production’s rehearsal period, Mechavich achieved much with limited time with the singers and orchestra, his expansive reading of the score accentuating intricacies of Puccini’s orchestrations that are often inaudible. Despite the disfiguring errors from his colleagues in the pit, Mechavich supported the singers ably, enabling them to immerse themselves in their characters’ struggles without struggling to be heard.

Both the adults of North Carolina Opera’s Chorus, directed by Scott McacLeod, and the Children’s Chorus, trained by Lauren Saeger, contributed sonorously to Act Two’s festivities. The orchestra pit’s misfortunes adversely affected the choral singing, undoubtedly confusing the singers in some passages, but the choristers’ professionalism prevailed. The youngsters pursued Parpignol and his cartload of toys with restless excitement and were themselves pursued with whimsical exasperation by their adult counterparts. As the working folk who come to Paris in Act Three in order to peddle their wares on the city’s snowy streets, first the gentlemen and then the ladies of the chorus sang vividly. More so than in many productions, the choristers were here participants in and not merely observers of the opera’s drama.

The customs officer and his sergeant who guard the city gate in Act Two—or do so when not distracted, as in this production, by the female patrons of the nearby tavern—wer​e galantly portrayed by Forrest Bunter and Jacob Cortes. A familiar participant in North Carolina Opera productions, Wade Henderson sang Parpignol’s lines exuberantly, but the tenor’s voice lacked its typical clarity and brightness.

An unexpected knock at the bohemians’ door in Act One announced an impromptu visit from the landlord Benoît, demanding remittance for his tenants’ unpaid rent. Unwelcome as the intrusion is to the destitute bohemians, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s entrance delighted the audience, who responded to his faultless comic adroitness and firm, forceful singing, all too rare in the rôles that he sang in this production, with uninhibited mirth. Hartmann sang ‘A lei ne vengo’ with deadpan hilarity, and his disdainful, almost disgusted exclamation of ‘mia moglie,’ prompting the bohemians’ feigned censure, was lobbed like a grenade. As Musetta’s deep-pocketed suitor Alcindoro in Act Two, Hartmann was an unusually debonair figure, a fitting companion for the glamorous coquette. Exemplified by a brilliantly-timed ‘Dove?’ in response to Musetta’s sham cries of pain, his singing of Alcindoro’s music—and, indeed, he sang rather than shouting the part—recalled the performances of Salvatore Baccaloni and Pompilio Malatesta, the preeminent Alcindori of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In both rôles, Hartmann was funny without being embarrassingly farcical, relying upon Puccini’s music to provide the characters’ comedic impetus.

IN REVIEW: baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Schaunard in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Prima la musica: baritone Timothy Murray as Schaunard in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

The musician Schaunard needs a more opulent voice than he receives in many productions. North Carolina Opera entrusted the rôle to baritone Timothy Murray, whose performance drew Schaunard from the background, where he sometimes hides in the shadows of his fellow bohemians. This Schaunard’s gleeful arrival in Act One, bearing the much-fêted products of his labors, lifted the spirits of his friends and those of their audience, the scene enlivened by Murray’s engaging vocal and theatrical presence. He relayed Schaunard’s tale of the frazzled Englishman and his noisy avian neighbor with droll humor and a rousing top F, his exclamation of mock annoyance at his ravenous comrades’ inattention revealing endearing playfulness. Always discernible in ensembles, Murray’s vocalism exuded conviviality in Act Two, but it was in the opera’s final act that Murray’s portrayal was most admirable. Jesting with his friends, this Schaunard was charmingly boyish, but Musetta’s entrance with news of Mimì’s decline shattered his illusion of happiness. The tenderness with which he caressed the dying Mimì’s hand was affectingly poignant. His demeanor suggested that Murray’s Schaunard sensed that Mimì’s death was inevitable, but finding that she had quietly expired devastated him. Murray sang splendidly throughout the evening, and his acting fully explored the emotional depth of Puccini’s music for the part.

IN REVIEW: bass ADAM LAU as Colline in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La sua filosofia è la compassione: bass Adam Lau as Colline in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

A wily Leporello and a powerhouse Don Basilio in North Carolina Opera’s productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2015) and Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (2016), bass Adam Lau returned to Raleigh to philosophize benevolently as Colline in La bohème. Like Murray’s Schaunard, Lau’s Colline made a galvanizing entrance in Act One, the voice full and formidable throughout the range. His unkempt ‘fur’ tamed by a barber’s razor in Act Two, Lau’s Colline solemnly accepted Mimì into the bohemians’ society and bemusedly analyzed Marcello’s sparring with Musetta. When the friends’ horseplay was halted by impending tragedy in Act Four, Lau touchingly limned the crumbling of Colline’s stoicism. The bass sang ‘Vecchia zimara, senti, io resto al pian’ with disarming directness, approaching the piece not as an ode to a grand gesture but as an ordinary man’s selfless attempt at providing comfort. Lau projected his voice and his characterization without pushing the former or overplaying the latter, guilelessly amplifying the rôle’s humanity.

IN REVIEW: soprano SHANNON KESSLER DOOLEY as Musetta in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La voce della libertà: soprano Shannon Kessler Dooley as Musetta in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

The rôle of the capricious Musetta was created by Camilla Pasini, a versatile singer whose repertoire included both Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin. In the Puccini canon, she also sang Tosca, inaugurating a lineage perpetuated in North Carolina Opera’s production by soprano Shannon Kessler Dooley. Her Musetta’s charisma surged onto the stage like an aural avalanche in Act Two, her entrance on Alcindoro’s arm eliciting as much awe from the Raleigh audience as from Puccini’s starstruck Parisians. Her toying with Marcello was spiteful but never malevolent. Dooley voiced ‘Quando me’n vo soletta per la vita’ fantastically, executing a resplendent subito piano on one of the aria’s climatic top Bs. Triumphantly adding the bill for the bohenians’ feast to Alcindoro’s tab at the end of the act and querulously quarreling with Marcello in Act Three, Dooley’s Musetta sang with élan, commanding the stage with insouciant panache.

More profound dimensions of Musetta’s character emerged in Act Four with her realization that Mimì’s life was rapidly waning. Dooley uttered ‘C’è Mimi che mi segue e che sta male’ and ‘Intesi dire che Mimì, fuggita dal viscontino’ urgently, heightening the bohemians’ and the audience’s awareness of the severity of Mimì’s condition. The expressivity of the soprano’s voicing of ‘Forse è l'ultima volta che ha espresso un desiderio​’ was very moving, the voice imparting the breadth of Musetta’s affection for Mimì. Dooley was untroubled by the low tessitura of the prayer,‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta,’ singing the plea for divine mercy fervently. Her chic elegance notwithstanding, this Musetta was as integral a part of the bohemians’ community as Mimì, and Dooley sang her music accordingly.

IN REVIEW: baritone LEVI HERNANDEZ as Marcello in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La vita è la sua tela: baritone Levi Hernandez as Marcello in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Baritone Levi Hernandez was a Marcello whose abiding sincerity overcame orchestral misfires and vocal obstacles. His singing of ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce assidera’ in the opera’s opening scene disclosed the effervescence of Hernandez’s concept of the part, and his interplay with Rodolfo, Colline, and Schaunard in Act One evinced Marcello’s reliance upon the support of his friends to brave loneliness and deprivation. As Mimì discerned, the vehemence of this Marcello’s denunciations of Musetta in Act Two proclaimed that his contemptuous indifference was an ineffective defense mechanism. Hernandez catapulted Marcello’s recapitulation of the famed waltz tune and his bellow of ‘mia sirena!’ into the theater with the ardor of rekindled passion.

In the scene before the tavern in Act Three, Marcello’s fraternal love for Mimī softened the iron core of Hernandez’s vocalism. Even when begging her to leave without making a scene, there was no harshness in the voice. Rodolfo’s subsequent cataloguing of Mimì’s alleged failings restored the steely edge in the baritone’s singing, Marcello’s rebuke of his friend’s dishonesty unsparing but not unkind. Hernandez conveyed an unnerving feeling of powerlessness as Rodolfo recounted the truth of Mimì’s growing frailty, the painter’s ire tinged with relief when Musetta’s laughter was heard from within the tavern. The vitriol of his fight with Musetta was transformed into longing of equal intensity in the duet with Rodolfo in Act Four. Hernandez articulated Marcello’s lines in the final scene with vulnerability, the wearied artist humbled by Musetta’s kindness and dismayed by Mimì’s death. Marcello’s tessitura is centered slightly higher than Hernandez’s vocal comfort zone, but he sang potently and pensively, using every moment of stress to embody the character’s anguish.

IN REVIEW: soprano LUCIA CESARONI as Mimì (left) and tenor SCOTT QUINN as Rodolfo (right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Il poeta e la poesia: soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Mimì (left) and tenor Scott Quinn as Rodolfo (right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Tenor Scott Quinn was an earnest, hardworking Rodolfo whose impressive upper register was betrayed to some extent by inconsistent resonance in the bottom octave. Alongside Hernandez, Lau, and Murray, Quinn was a subdued actor, his Rodolfo seeming more lost in a daydream than experiencing the opera’s drama. Still, Quinn sang ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille’ and all of his music in Act One capably and at time thrillingly, his account of ‘Che gelida manina,’ transposed downward, building to a reverberant summit. He began ‘O soave fanciulla’ with apt wonder, rising ecstatically to the unison top As but adhering to Puccini’s intentions by eschewing the oft-interpolated top C at the duet’s close. The musical and theatrical challenges of Act Two were met with similar commitment, his straightforward singing of ‘Dal mio cervel sbocciano i canti’ and the beguiling phrase ‘son io il poeta, essa la poesia’ avoiding emotional excess. A sinister aspect of Rodolfo’s psyche was glimpsed in his warning to Mimì about his jealousy, enunciated by Quinn with disconcerting matter-of-factness.

The buoyancy of Quinn’s singing in the opera’s opening scene returned with his voicing of ‘Marcello, finalmente!’ in Act Three, but the nonchalance was short-lived. Bitterness darkened his articulations of ‘Già un’altra volta credetti morto il mio cor’ and ‘Mimì è una civetta,’ giving way to open-hearted despair in ‘Invan nascondo la mia vera tortura’ and especially ‘Mimì è tanto malata.’ The tenor’s best singing of the evening was heard in the scene with Mimì, who, shaken by overhearing Rodolfo’s assessment of her worsening health, resolves to leave him. Here, Quinn’s technique enabled him to sing sotto voce passages with finesse. Again in Act Four, initial ribaldry was replaced first by wistful regret in the duet with Marcello and then by abject sorrow in the final moments with Mimì. Rodolfo’s grief was all the more piercing for being expressed without sobs and distortions of the vocal line, completing a portrayal molded by music, not histrionics.

IN REVIEW: soprano LUCIA CESARONI as Mimì in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Lucia, la portatrice di luce: soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Mimì in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Her timbre often reminiscent of the voice of Rosanna Carteri, soprano Lucia Cesaroni sang Mimì’s music with consistent security and tonal beauty. From her first ‘Scusi’ in Act One, she brought to her performance gladdening vestiges of long-dormant styles, integrated with her own sensibilities and vocal persona. Recalling Licia Albanese, this Mimì’s first words to Rodolfo disclosed awkward excitement tempered by unassailable propriety. Cesaroni sang ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ gorgeously, her top As ideally lofted on the breath, and, crucially, she offered Rodolfo and the audience a look into Mimì’s solitary but fulfilling world. The shrewdness of her artistry was apparent in her suggestive but shy voicing of the single word ‘curioso’ in the duet with Rodolfo, in which she ended Act One with a dulcet top C. Central to Cesaroni’s portrayal of Mimì in Act Two was a palpable awareness of belonging, the thoughtful young woman having found a place among people who appreciated and embraced her. She sang ‘Una cuffetta a pizzi’ with girlish elation, and the emotions that overtook Mimì as the act progressed—burgeoning devotion to Rodolfo, empathy for the love-scarred Marcello, comfort with Colline and Schaunard, and admiration for Musetta—were reflected in the colorations with which Cesaroni infused her voice.

The euphoria of Act Two was gone when Mimì stumbled into Act Three, her gait weakened by sickness and conflict. Cesaroni’s voicing of ‘Sa dirma, scusi’ was pained, the demure outsider of Act One supplanting the more assured lady who arrived at Café Momus on Rodolfo’s arm. Desperation propelled the soprano’s singing of ‘O! buon Marcello, aiuto,’ the top B♭s redolent of emotional crisis. Listening as Rodolfo told Marcello of the ravages of her illness, this Mimì uttered Ahimè, morire?’ with genuine fear, not having admitted to herself that her life was slipping away. Facing this reality, Cesaroni phrased ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore’ with tremendous feeling. Mimì’s entrance in Act Four was harrowing, but Cesaroni’s singing of ‘O mio Rodolfo!’ and ‘Ah, come si sta bene qui’ heralded the dying woman’s consoling return to the milieu in which she knew happiness. She permeated ‘Sono andati?’ with serenity. Having lived discreetly, Cesaroni’s Mimì also died peacefully, liberated by her final reunion with the people who loved her. Cesaroni was a Mimì whose intimate death was felt by every observer who has endured the loss of a loved one. It is this connection between music and audience that keeps La bohème on the world’s stages and in listeners’ hearts.