Monday, May 11, 2009

Sacramento Opera, La Boheme, May 8, 2009

About the 30th time you see La Boheme, you begin to focus on the itty-bitty particulars. Thus, I am here to report that Sacramento Opera stage director Chuck Hudson opted for a bowl of pickled herring instead of the usual cartoonish prop-fish in the final scene, that the baguette was, indeed, employed in the mock duel (reinforced by a steel rod, no less), and that the sight gag used to demonstrate the failings of Musetta's new shoes was a naughty sit-down can-can.

A more important decision was the use of an upstairs loft over the tollgate in Act III, to host parts of the double-couple interplay - but this may not have been a decision at all, since the sets were borrowed from the University of Cincinnati. Brian Ruggaber's design is pretty nifty - the Paris skyline literally flies away to open up the fourth wall -but the higher elevation of the singers had the unfortunate effect of sending their voices directly into the flies. This added to the already-challenging acoustics of the Sacramento Community Theater and the sometimes overboisterous playing of Tim Rolek's orchestra.

Still, the production featured some strong young singers, equipped with quirks that were sometimes problematic, sometimes intriguing. This came through especially in the garrett scene, whose trio of hit arias did not strike gold the way they usually do. Adam Flowers was fighting his passagio in "Che gelida manina" (thought his top notes were fine), and NaGuanda Nobles sang a hurried "Mi chiamano Mimi" that refused to blossom in its usual fashion, not even at the rapturous turn when the spring sunrise comes to Mimi's windows.

With Flowers, this seemed to be simply a matter of warming up. He was back to form in the tollgate duet with Mimi, "Donde lieta usci," and downright captivating in his final-act duet with Marcello, "Ah, Mimi, tu piu non torni." As for Nobles, it turned out that "Mi chiamano" simply didn't take advantage of her outstanding feature, a sultry lower range that came to the fore in the tollgate scene and made the death scene even more devastating than usual.

I am forever amazed by Rochelle Bard's chameleonic ability to match her voice to a role. Though she's capable of broadening her tone to the depth of a lyric-dramatic when it's called for, she chose to rule that quality out completely and sing Musetta as a pure Rossinian lyric. This added an extra degree of coloratura to Musetta's famed Waltz, and allowed Bard to reveal, through deft phrasing and a gorgeous final messa di voce, the longing behind her character's seeming bragadoccio. She also does a pretty good can-can, and bosses around her Alcindoro (Burr Phillips) in an extremely amusing fashion.

As for Marcello, who continues to be my favorite of the bohemians, Nicolai Janitzky is not much more than perfect, his baritone resounding but never forced, his characterization a fine balance of Marcello's machismo and painterly sensitivity. He was the other reason that the final Marcello/Rodolfo duet achieved such a profound level of intensity. (And a brief plaudit for Tom Corbeil, who did a fine job with Colline's Coat Aria.)

Sacramento Opera's volunteer chorus was superbly energetic; Hudson led them to a degree of barely controlled chaos in the Cafe Momus scene, which is just about right (and did so without the usual scrambling children). The silver lining to the orchestra's occasional overplaying was that they were also spot-on, bringing out all the fine colors of Puccini's score. I also enjoyed the company's supertitle projection, which allowed for additional lines to be added to a single frame. This allowed the translations to more closely match the singing.

The sign of a masterwork is that, even on a 30th viewing, the listener is still making discoveries, and this time I made at least two. One arrived as Musetta was warming Mimi's medicine over a candle, saying, "Don't let the flame go out." I apologize to librettists Giacosa and Illica for not noticing this before. The other was the suspended note from the strings at the moment of Mimi's death. Puccini is the master of playing the audience's emotions, and yes, you bastard, for the 30th time you made me cry.

Through May 12. Sacramento's '09-'10 season includes "The Elixir of Love," "La Traviata" and an evening of opera music by Tchaikovsky. 916/737-1000,
Image: NaGuanda Nobles and Adam Flowers as Mimi and Rodolfo. Photo by Sacramento Opera/Eleakis Photography.