Saturday, November 22, 2014

San Francisco Opera's La Boheme

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photos by Cory Weaver.
November 19, 2014

Once in a while you have to begin an opera review by simply saying, “Wow!”

As in, who is this Michael Fabiano guy playing Rodolfo and where did he get that voice? It wasn’t evident right away. During the fratboy hijinks that begin Puccini’s opera, he struck the listener simply as a young man gifted with a strong tenor and ideally suited to the role. About halfway through his introduction to Mimi, “Che gelida manina,” that voice began to grow – and he was making a demanding aria look way too easy. Fabiano’s tone is supremely broad, just as forceful as the best spinto but without a spinto edge. (Not that that edge is undesirable – many aficionados treasure it – but it’s rare to hear this kind of power without it.)

Fabiano is the first person to receive the Richard Tucker Award and the Beverly Sills Artist Award in the same year (2014), and appeared in SFO’s 2011 production of Lucrezia Borgia with Renee Fleming. I also heard from an old college classmate who reported, “He’s always sounded like that.” The kid is going places.

Christian Van Horn (Colline), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Dale Travis (Benoit), Alexey Markov (Marcello) and Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard).
In the face of all this ease and suavity, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou’s “Mi chiamano Mimi” seemed a bit labored, but by the café scene she was warmed up, and her opening to the “death duet,” “Son partiti?”, sung over a bed of plaintive minor strings, was vastly memorable. Playing Marcello, baritone Alexy Markov was wise not to compete with Rodolfo’s power, and also played the painter with a more serious aura than usual. In Act III, after the deliciously Italian squabble with Musetta, his intense reaction underscored the ironic flip-flop of the scene, the M’s breaking up yet again just as Rodolfo and Mimi are getting back together.

Nadine Sierra as Musetta.
And what a Musetta! Soprano Nadine Sierra plays the famed Waltz in a luscious vamp, her voice equal parts oil and vinegar, assisted by generous space from conductor Giuseppe Finzi, and finishes with a long, dazzling diminuendo. She makes mincemeat of her poor benefactor, Alcindoro (played by the invaluable bass-baritone Dale Travis, who also plays the landlord Benoit) and absolutely conquers the scene. Assisted by a superb children’s chorus, a bird-seller done up like The Magic Flute’s Papageno, a perfectly San Franciscan family of black parents, a white kid and an Asian kid (Ethan Chen, who delivers his lines with bravado), and a genuine walk-through band of brass and drums, this is probably the best Café Momus scene I’ve ever witnessed. (Kudos to stage director John Caird.)

Among the bohemians, baritone Hadleigh Adams lends great fun and energy as the musician Schaunard, and Christian Van Horn gives an extra measure of profundity to philoospher Colline’s Coat Aria. (Oddly, Van Horn is also playing a philosopher in SFO’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola). Opera San Jose fans, meanwhile, will find one of their alums, baritone Torlef Borsting, playing the customs house officer.

The Cafe Momus set.
David Farley’s set design is a star performer unto its own. The backdrops are composed of canvas paintings, arrayed in an almost cubist patchwork. Between acts 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, half of these ascend to the flies, while the rest spin around to form the following scene. It’s a trick worthy of David Copperfield.

Part of Boheme’s remarkable legacy is that it reveals new wrinkles even after dozens of viewings, and the following are a few examples:

--The theme underscoring the garret opening is very similar to “Mia gelosa,” the title character’s leitmotif in Tosca.

--The Mimi-Rodolfo meeting is the most gloriously composed coffee date ever (even in the painfully male tendency to lay out one’s own awesome qualities before asking the girl a single thing).

--A great line from Benoit: “Skinny women are malicious.”

Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo.
--The fake duel of Act IV is accomplished with a fireplace poker and shovel, which allows for much percussion, but still I miss the traditional baguette epee.

--The most powerful quality of the opera is a Woody Allen ability to juggle comedy and tragedy at the same time (e.g., the interruption of said swordfight by the entrance of a dying Mimi). Life is exactly like that.

--A thought on Rodolfo from an actual bohemian (me): the thing that really scares him about Mimi is that her illness will ruin his chance to become a great writer.

This last point was also made by William Berger in an excellent article in the SFO program, “Everything You Know About La Boheme is Wrong,” in which he also made this lovely cross-genre reference:

“When Mimi dies, it is sad – we hear a “shiver” and the orchestra wanders harmonically unanchored into any one key (as if to say something’s vaguely wrong, but neither we nor the characters on stage are sure what exactly yet). It is only when Rodolfo finally figures out what has happened that the orchestra thunders out the unforgettable chords in the inherently sad key of c-sharp minor. (This is the key of the evocative adagio first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata; other readers might also recognize this key from Led Zeppelin’s equally moody song “No Quarter,” with the lyric ‘walking side by side with death…’”)

SFO’s program notes are routinely divine (especially the regular articles by Thomas May), but this one will especially please my Zephead friends. I add my own contribution below: my poem “Marcello’s Lament,” first published in the 1992 issue of Eclectic Literary Forum (Tonawanda, New York).

Through Dec. 7, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Alternating casts. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and a widely published author and poet. His series of poems inspired by operas appears in the collection Great Showtunes of the American Stage, available on Amazon Kindle.

 Marcello's Lament

(For Robert Pesich)

"To the ancient Egyptians, these stars (of Orion's Belt) were the resting place of the soul of Osiris, god of the underworld and a symbol of creativity and the continuity of life…"
            --National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky

Starving tenor finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away)

He kneels on the sand
where the ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened chars
until he fingers the edges of its mineral heart
and pulls it into the sun

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is
Musetta, the woman you cannot
but if you hold her to your ear
she will sing you bright waltzes
and turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café

But the song and the glance are not enough
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was Roquefort
I would be saying too much)

The fragments trunkle their way through his veins
and gather at the aorta
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis neglects her duty
and mountainside lanterns
burst like meteors through the Paris streets

Years after Mimi's last breath
he comes back to the sea to
bare his skin to the inkwell sky
and wait for Orion's Belt to burn him down
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away

Photo by Michael J. Vaughn

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