19 November 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (S. Kantorski, A. Livingston Geis, D. Pershall, D. Thompson-Brewer, D. Hartmann, S. Outlaw, R. Wells, T. Gilliam, M. Williams, B. Kilpatrick; Greensboro Opera, 13 November 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Alan Howell, © by Greensboro Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohème – Suzanne Kantorski (Mimì), Arnold Livingston Geis (Rodolfo), David Pershall (Marcello), Diana Thompson-Brewer (Musetta), Donald Hartmann (Colline) Sidney Outlaw (Schaunard), Robert Wells (Benoît, Alcindoro), Travis Gilliam (Parpignol), Markel Rashad Williams (Un sergente dei doganieri), Brian Kilpatrick (Un doganiere); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joshua Horsch, conductor [David Holley, director; Trent Pcenicni, costume designer; Jeff Neubauer, lighting designer and technical director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 13 November 2022]

The art form’s complex emotions, convoluted dramatic situations, and confounding offstage politics sometimes distract those who create and consume opera from the most basic reasons for its four-century endurance. When any opera company announces a season that includes a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, there are invariably calls for justification of the opera’s prevalence in the repertory. 126 years after its première at Teatro Regio di Torino, why is La bohème performed so frequently and at the expense of neglected works that deserve reassessment? Proponents of the score propose thoughtful artistic rationalizations for staging La bohème, but the principal validation of the piece’s viability is gratingly banal. Yes, the characters are winsome, the melodies are memorable, and the tragedy is gripping, but the crucial motivation for producing La bohème is often more practical than poetic. For better or worse, companies perform La bohème because audiences want to hear it.

The ‘worse’ of the aforementioned conceit disfigures some performances of La bohème, intensifying objections to its regular appearances in operatic seasons, but Greensboro Opera’s production, transforming the UNCG Auditorium stage into the Parisian Quartier Latin in which the denizens of Puccini’s adaptation of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème live and love, demonstrated that the opera’s commercial viability results not from nostalgia or audiences’ lack of imagination but from the still-poignant music. Revitalizing a well-travelled production with set designs by Robert Little that originated at Tri-Cities Opera, the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley guided a performance in which the much-maligned pathos of La bohème was imaginatively rekindled, the stage action engagingly vivid without being excessively hectic. As in a number of recent Greensboro Opera productions, Trent Pcenicni’s attractive wig and makeup designs and Jeff Neubauer’s expert lighting and technical direction ably complemented Holley’s concept, and the lovely costumes, those for the principals sourced from Sarasota Opera and the choristers’ from Pierre’s Mascots and Costumes, enhanced the performance’s lavish visual appeal. Holley’s stagings often impress by telling familiar stories with new perspectives, and this lovingly straightforward Bohème was representative of his most thoughtful, heartfelt work.

Often employing expansive tempi that facilitated appreciation of the skillfulness of Puccini’s orchestrations, conductor Joshua Horsch led a performance in which scenes of tremendous poise alternated with moments of imprecise ensemble. Inconsistent cues yielded wrong entrances and lack of coordination among singers, chorus, and orchestra, most disruptively in Act Two. There were nonetheless many passages in which Horsch achieved true distinction. Under his baton, Greensboro Opera’s orchestra and choruses, the latter’s children trained by LJ Martin and the adults by James Baumgardner, delivered their parts with intensity and integrity. Despite momentary fluctuations in intonational accuracy and balances, the most jarring of which was the trumpet’s over-prominence at the start of Act Four, the musicians played with understanding of Puccini’s style. Similarly, the choral singing overcame fleeting instability to thrill in Act Two. Passing difficulties did not diminish the cumulative impact of Horsch’s handling of the performance, in which the well-known tragedy was realized with dignity, directness, and musical discernment.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Colline, tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo, baritone ROBERT WELLS as Benoît, baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Marcello, and baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW as Schaunard in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Gli amici e l’intruso: (from left to right) bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Colline, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo, baritone Robert Wells as Benoît, baritone David Pershall as Marcello, and baritone Sidney Outlaw as Schaunard in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Taking advantage of the wealth of talent that enriches the Triad community, this production of La bohème surrounded the artists at the opera’s core with singers who brought vocal solidity and well-honed stagecraft to supporting rôles. The lines for the Doganiere and Sergente dei doganieri, the customs officer and his sergeant who patrol the gates of Paris in the first scene of Act Three, were commandingly sung by bass-baritones Brian Kilpatrick and Markel Rashad Williams. Tenor Travis Gilliam peddled the toyseller Parpignol’s wares with bright tone and clear words, heightening the festive atmosphere of the opera’s second act with his cheerful vociferations.

As the bohemians’ landlord Benoît in Act One and Musetta’s indulgent but indignant suitor Alcindoro in Act Two, baritone Robert Wells sang with deft comedic timing and vocal security but was occasionally inaudible, especially in the lower fifth of the range. Both Benoît’s ‘Timido in gioventù, ora me ne ripago’ and Alcindoro’s ‘Come un facchino correr di qua’ were voiced capably, Wells enunciating the words with panache, and his characterizations benefited from an absence of the over-the-top antics to which some exponents of these rôles resort.

Portraying the musician Schaunard, baritone Sidney Outlaw was in superlative voice, every note of the part placed with fluidity and projected with bravado. Declaiming ‘La Banca di Francia per voi si sbilancia’ in Act One with feigned grandiloquence, he established Schaunard as the bohemians’ impish instigator. His story of the exasperated Englishman and the noisy parrot failing to divert his friends from their ribaldry, this Schaunard uttered ‘Il diavolo vi porti tutti quanti’ with aggravation that did not conceal his own amusement. His characterization more pensive but still mirthful in Act Two, Outlaw voiced ‘Fra spintoni e pestate accorrendo’ captivatingly. In Act Four, Outlaw’s Schaunard pivoted from architect of merriment to emotional anchor, his alarm and grief subdued by his efforts at comforting and supporting his friends. Mimì’s death was more affecting for the spontaneity of Schaunard’s recognition of her passing, Outlaw viscerally imparting the anguish of the discovery. In every scene, the psychological immediacy of Outlaw’s performance was communicated by vocalism of uncompromising grace and gusto.

In the course of his esteemed career, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s acquaintance with La bohème has been shaped by singing Puccini’s music for Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, Benoît, and Alcindoro. Here returning to the rôle of Colline after a two-decade interval, Hartmann sang and acted masterfully, his experience engendering a circumspect characterization of the amiable philosopher. Voicing ‘Già dell'Apocalisse appariscono i segni’ with an ideal balance of wit and weight, he escalated the joviality of the opera’s opening act. Welcoming Mimì into the bohemians’s selective society in Act Two, the feigned gravitas of his proclamations was droll but also imparted abiding sincerity. Colline’s affection for his friends permeated Hartmann’s boisterous singing in the first half of Act Four, but Colline’s stoicism was upended by the dying Mimì’s arrival. The profound sorrow evinced by his magnificent account of ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti’ wholly justified singing the aria at a tempo somewhat slower than Puccini’s intended Allegretto moderato, and, in Hartmann’s performance, Colline’s understated act of charity, giving the proceeds of the sale of his coat to Musetta in reimbursement of her sacrifice for Mimì, was uncommonly touching.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) baritone ROBERT WELLS as Alcindoro, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Musetta, baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Marcello, tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo, and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]La regina del viale: (from left to right) baritone Robert Wells as Alcindoro, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Musetta, baritone David Pershall as Marcello, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo, and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Some productions and performers depict Musetta as a foil for Mimì, a robust, flamboyant contrast to the frail Mimì’s docile introversion. Greensboro Opera’s Musetta embodied this archetype, but soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer gave her a beguilingly unique personality. From her first appearance in Act Two, it was apparent that Musetta’s flirtation with the dull Alcindoro was solely a means to an end, but there were flickers of fondness in her banter with him. Thompson-Brewer’s voicing of ‘Marcello mi vide’ revealed that, as Mimì sensed, passion for her recalcitrant former lover motivated Musetta’s actions.

‘Quando me’n vo’ soletta per la via’ was radiantly sung, the top Bs resplendent. The quarreling in Act Three was spirited but avoided vocal harshness, affection tempering even the most heated exchanges. Helplessness shaded Thompson-Brewer’s voice in Act Four, her singing of ‘Intesi dire che Mimì’ and ‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta’ disclosing the breadth of Musetta’s devotion to the bohemians. She alone seemed to accept that Mimì’s death was imminent yet was unprepared for it. Vocally and theatrically, Thompson-Brewer’s Musetta delighted, but it was as a humble woman holding the hand of her dying friend that she shone most brilliantly.

In the opera’s first minutes, his ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce’ trembling with cold, baritone David Pershall seemed out of sorts in Marcello’s music, the middle of the range lacking focus and notes above the stave constricted. As the performance progressed, however, the voice settled, and Pershall’s burnished timbre filled the theater. Interacting first with Rodolfo and subsequently with Colline, Schaunard, and Benoît, Marcello’s lines were sung with humor and confidence. The evolution of Marcello’s feelings in Act Two was palpably evinced, Pershall intuitively differentiating his vocal inflections in ‘Facciamo insieme a vendere e a comprar’ and ‘Domandatelo a me’ and declaring ‘Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta’ with fervor that affirmed the resurgence of Marcello’s infatuation with Musetta.

Pershall’s most plangent singing of the afternoon coincided with the fateful confrontations of Act Three. Learning from the distraught Mimì of her estrangement from Rodolfo, this Marcello counseled without hectoring, even his ‘Per carità, non fate scene qua!’ delivered with tenderness. The gentleness of his discourse with Mimì gave way to frustration as Rodolfo falsely attributed his repudiation of Mimì to her coquetry, the baritone voicing ‘Non mi sembri sincer’ insistently. The sound of Musetta’s laughter from within the tavern ignited a blaze of mistrust that engulfed the stage as the lovers battled. The duet with Rodolfo in Act Four was handsomely sung, ‘Io non so come sia che il mio pennello lavori’ suffused with disenfranchisement, but Marcello’s true regard for Musetta emerged in the opera’s final moments, Pershall using his voice as a conduit for emotions too complex for words alone.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì (left) and tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Nessuna chiave, qui: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì (left) and tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Enunciating each phrase of the rôle with linguistic clarity befitting a poet, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis portrayed Rodolfo with steadfast earnestness and vocal elegance, his upper register scintillating throughout the performance. His early scenes were marked by vocalism of youthful athleticism and animation, his account of ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi’ filled with curiosity and awe. Rodolfo’s halfhearted attempt at writing interrupted by Mimì, the frigidity of the bohemians’ garret was warmed by Geis’s glowing vocalism. ‘Che gelida manina’ was the amorous reverie that Puccini intended it to be, persuasively evocative of burgeoning love, and the ascending lines of ‘O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso’ soared above the orchestra as they were meant to do. The ardor with which Geis described Mimì to Rodolfo’s friends in Act Two was stirring, ‘Questa è Mimì, gaia fioraia’ and ‘Perché son io il poeta, essa la poesia’ voiced engrossingly, but the dangerously jealous and suspicious elements of Rodolfo’s personality resounded in the tenor’s articulation of ‘Sappi per tuo governo che non darei perdono in sempiterno.’

The emotional maelstrom of La bohème’s third act swept through Geis’s performance but never altered the unerring course of his singing. His utterance of ‘Mimì è una civetta’ was impassioned but unmistakably disingenuous, making the candor of ‘Mimì è tanto malata!’ crushing for both the eavesdropping Mimì and the audience. Geis managed the demanding tessitura of the poignant scene with Mimì with astonishing ease, caressing phrases that some tenors shout. In the same vein, his singing of ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni’ in the duet with Marcello in Act Four was expressive rather than explosive, each note placed without forcing. Geis’s vocalism as Rodolfo endeavored to reinvigorate the fading Mimì was boyishly effervescent, but guilt defeated his effort. In this performance, Rodolfo’s reaction to Mimì’s death fused the pain of loss with the sickening devastation of having failed her, arrestingly voiced.

IN REVIEW: tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo (left) and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]La vera Lucia: tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo (left) and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Before she was seen on stage, the voice of soprano Suzanne Kantorski’s Mimì enchanted listeners, particularly her Rodolfo, whose initial exclamation of ‘Una donna!’ exuded amazement. Bringing a vernal aura into the chilled garret, Kantorski sang ‘Oh! sventata, sventata!’ sweetly, shyly telling Rodolfo of her simple but fulfilling life. Rising to gleaming top As, she sang ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ gorgeously, and the lush femininity of her ‘Oh! come dolci scendono le sue lusinghe al core’ and suggestive teasing of Rodolfo recalled the celebrated Mimì of Licia Albanese. No Rodolfo could have resisted the charm of this Mimì’s ‘Una cuffietta a pizzi tutta rosa ricamata’ in Act Two, and Kantorski deepened her characterization by voicing Mimì’s sympathy and admiration for Musetta so beautifully.

Weariness weakened Mimì’s resolve in Act Three, but Kantorski sang ‘Sa dirmi, scusi’ and ‘O buona donna, mi fate il favore’ urgently. Pleading for Marcello’s help, her Mimì intoned ‘Rodolfo m’ama e mi fugge’ wrenchingly, and her interjections as she overheard Rodolfo’s tale of her deteriorating health demonstrated her innocent optimism. Realizing that her life was waning, her resilient ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore torna sola Mimì’ aimed as much to reassure Rodolfo as to quiet her own fear. Without succumbing to lachrymose exaggeration, Kantorski’s singing in Act Four manifested the resigned sadness of a young woman seeking the company of people she loved in her final hours. Paralleling Rodolfo’s remorse, Mimì’s ‘O mio Rodolfo, mi vuoi qui con te?’ was genuinely inquisitive, and ‘Lascia ch’io guardi intorno’ and ‘Sono andati?’ were voiced with exquisite purity. The technical accomplishment of Kantorski’s singing was unfaltering, but it was the emotion of her performance, allied with the work of her colleagues in this production, that silenced cynicism about La bohème’s unabating relevance.