Monday, April 17, 2017

A Noteworthy Boheme at Opera San Jose

Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline (Kirk Dougherty, Matthew Hanscom,
Brian James Myer and Colin Ramsey). All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini's La Boheme
April 15, 2017

Opera San Jose has produced a superb La Boheme. That being said, and this being my 123rd review of this opera (perhaps I exaggerate), I thought I would work directly from my notes.

Act I
paintings! – Gauguin (Rousseau?)
            This is a Marcello with ambition! His paintings are enormous: a Red Sea epic (referred to in the libretto) and a tropical-looking work resembling the work of the two painters above (Lori Scheper-Kesel, prop master).

“I am doggone cold!” – Marcello
            This supertitle has general director Larry Hancock’s wit all over it.

blind Colline
            An interesting choice, with a couple “sight gags” to it, but given the philosopher’s love of books, the questions arise: Are they Braille? Does someone read to him? Ramsey’s bass-baritone, as usual, is elegant, and the sunglasses add a nice hipsterish quality.

Schaunard – velvet (parrot story)
            Brian James Myer’s baritone is a joy to listen to, and he plays the musician Schaunard with a smooth joie de vivre, particularly when relating the demise of the pooped Polly. Is there some secret mother lode of male voices that OSJ is mining? Because… damn!

ADD pace of opening scene
            Puccini’s first act is lightning-paced, an asset certainly helped by stage director Michael Shell and the Garret Boys, who sometimes resemble the Marx Bros. The comedy, which provides such a lovely framework for the later tragedy, is an underrated element of the opera. The grilling of landlord Benoit (Carl King) is brilliant.

How does he finish an article for The Beaver in five minutes?
            Further proof that Rodolfo is a big fat poser. Predictably, he gets writer’s block. (If only some woman would knock at the door.)

bathtub desk
            Another score for the propmaster, this one triples as a rowboat.

key-hide good
            A tasty little piece of comedy, Rodolfo pocketing Mimi’s housekey in the hopes of keeping her around for a while. Well done.

mask production, Kirk, resume song
            The resume song is “Che gelida manina,” and most guys do this on a first meeting: here’s who I am, here’s what I do (“sonno poeto”), and I’d love it if you would hire me as your boyfriend. But what’s up with Kirk Dougherty’s voice? He’s been pretty spinto since he arrived in 2014, and pleasantly so, but here his voice trends lyric in spectacular fashion, his top notes filling the hall with ringing sound. The source seems to be a focus on the mask, using the sinal cavity as a resonating chamber (a la Sgr. Pavarotti), which you can see by noting how his mouth stays somewhat small (and often smiling), even on higher notes.

“The first kiss of April is mine” (rise)
            “Mi chiamano Mimi” turns a lovely modal shift at the appearance of spring, and climbs into this beautiful line, referring to Mimi’s position at the top of the building. A gorgeous image.

Mimi – high note at end
            As Mimi and Rodolfo sing the final line of “O soave fanciulla” from outside the garret, the soprano is supposed to take the higher note, with the tenor supplying a lower harmony. Tenors being tenors, this doesn’t often happen. So bravo, Dougherty, for letting the lady have her glory.

Vanessa Becerra (Musetta) and Matthew Hanscom (Marcello).
Act II
Set applause!
            Kim A. Tolman’s Café Momus, heavy on the trompe l’oeil, is immaculate and lovely, inspiring one of those only-in-opera ovations for inanimate objects.

            The shift to a WWI time-setting allowed designer Alina Bokovikova a whole new palette of colors, and she took due advantage, filling the stage with lively fabrics. The gent in the top hat and purple coat resembled Willie Wonka. Parpignol (Yungbae Yang) appeared as half-harlequin, half-Pierrot. But Musetta’s green coat took top honors. The stage direction in the scene was also superb, creating an ever-lively scene.

mocking Rodolfo’s poetry
            The fratboys make appropriately irreverent faces as Rodolfo waxes sappy about his (half-hour old) romance. Love it.

Sultry waltz, Mimi’s cross-melody
            Soprano Vanessa Becerra and conductor Joseph Marcheso took Musetta’s Waltz at a sultry pace, accentuating the sexiness and utterly pulling it off. It also seemed to being out the cross lines that Mimi sings from her table, which are beautiful additions.

Marcello, while Musetta is ridding herself of old man, rehearsing conversations
            Baritone Matthew Hanscom, who just has “it” when it comes to stage presence, spent much of the Waltz in the doorway of the Café, practicing conversations with Musetta. It was a beautiful bit of background acting (with an assist to director Shell), and revealed the passion that Marcello still held for his off-and-on lover, despite his bitter protestations.

Matthew Hanscom (Marcello) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Spooky tree limbs
            An effective addition from set designer Tolman, a third of a treetop looming over the gates.

music in found songs – workers at the gate
            Using the calls of the workers is an intriguing Puccinian device, and foretells Tosca, in which overheard cantatas, church masses and shepherd’s songs are drafted into the score.

resonation – Mimi’s top notes
            Sylvia Lee’s soprano doesn’t shine as much as it did in last fall’s Lucia di Lammermoor (she’s singing Mimi a bit more darkly), but her top notes have this remarkable way of expanding and filling the hall like fairy dust. It’s an extraordinary effect.

wingman-girlfriend element
            There’s something very touching about the conversation between Mimi and Marcello. Being in love with someone’s best friend allows you to tell them things you could tell no one else.

Marcello – presence
            As mentioned earlier, but evident especially in this scene, given the size difference with the petite Lee.

talking about someone’s impending death in front of them
            A fascinating scenario, as set up by Puccini and his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

“Because of me, this disease will kill her.” – Rodolfo
            This note has a personal aspect. As an author, I realize that I lead a tough life, and that not everyone can come along with me. With Rodolfo, his poverty, combined with his love for a woman with failing health, puts him in quite an emotional vise.

Kirk Dougherty (Rodolfo) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Act IV
            The scene opens with Marcello applying this white primer to his canvas, which is what an artist quite literally does when he wants a clean slate.

Schaunard’s got some moves!
            I suspect Brian James Myer has had some dance classes. Nice fandango!

frat party! flying papers
            The goofiness that precedes Mimi’s ominous appearance is well-done, including the answer to the question, How does one conduct a duel with a blind man? (The answer: wrassling.) The tossing of Rodolfo’s manuscript pages is a fun, confetti-ish effect, and also leaves Mimi to die over a sea of Rodolfo’s words.

K & S – chemistry
            This is always somewhat inexplicable, but Dougherty and Lee simply look good together, and interact well. Lee has the advantage of a small frame, which allows her to portray Mimi’s frailty. It would be interesting to see how this plays out with the alternate Mimi, Julie Adams, who is both taller and larger of voice.

Through April 30, California Theater, 345 South First St, San Jose., 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. He has been reviewing opera since 1983. Operaville was recently named the 8th-ranked opera blog in the world.