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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Imploding Divas: La Bohème at Lyric Opera

Saturday was my first foray into wholly solo opera going. But let me not dwell on my abandonment by L for feeble reasons like "love" and "marriage," for he has suffered enough: He, too, had Bohème for his first opera of the season, and the disco inferno version of it surely has him reflecting on his sins. And if the disco inferno can't keep your artists warm, nothing will.

We had our own artistic antics here in Chicago, of course, what with Angela Gheorghiu getting the sack just days before opening. (I don't think everyone is seeing the big picture here: I'm envisioning a Bohème with Mimi being pre-dead for your convenience. Most briskly paced Puccini EVAH!)

As with Turan.Cn last year, this was not just a repeat of Bohème for me, but a repeat of the production designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi. In 2001-2002, it wasn't actually in our season, but our man formerly on the inside helped us score individual tickets, and we saw it with Wire Monkey Mother, the Lad, and WMM's mom. (Who was kind enough not to back a way slowly when, at the first intermission, I commented, "You know, those two arias are reduced to 'I'm Roger,' and 'They call me Mimi' in Rent!")

I hadn't realized then that the production is actually as old as I am, but it makes sense. So unlike the Hockney production from last year, I don't think I had any epiphanies about the sets or costumes. I'm not knocking them: They're lovely if straightforward and safe. But again, I refer you to the review of Boogie Bohème above and remain thankful for small favors.

And, really, there is an argument to be made for letting the not-baroque go unmolested. The garret set for acts I and IV, for example, is flat out, simply garrety. We see two of its walls: The longer goes from down-right to up-center and has the door to the outside world in it as well as the (thankfully) underused spiral staircase, one of the beds (behind a bit of privacy screen). The second wall runs from up-center to left-center. Most of it is comprises the grimy windows overlooking Paris. The sail like shades are pinned up over it, and the odds and ends cluttering the length of the rest of the wall offsets what might otherwise feel like too much space for our poor artists. Another bed is tucked half out of sight behind Marcello's easel along this wall.

Along similar lines, the open floor space is broken up with the one good chair that serves to accommodate Marcello's model and Mimi's continual fainting and the small dining table set near enough the wood-burning stove to remind it what happens to uppity tables and chairs. A single supporting column boxing in the upper right hand corner finishes off this set, and what you have is a space that is lofty and cavernous enough to have friends, lovers, and hangers on piling in as needs be, and cramped enough to believably hinder our starving artists' work. It's open and it's intimate and—for the love of Pete—it does not suck up the sound.

The Latin Quarter in Act II is great, too. It divides the set into three parts from downstage to up, so despite the fact that the scene is much wider than deep, it has the feel of Caillebotte all the way down. There were some issues with sound balance and sight lines in this act, but I wouldn't lay the blame at the feet of the set (not that this set has feet), or at least not entirely. The zeal to give the foreground the feel of crowded, overflowing shops with Cafe Momus at down-left may have kept too many of the oodles of people concentrated in that one area of the stage.

This makes our little knots of characters somewhat difficult to find, visually and vocally, with the exception of Musetta, who is wearing Miz Ellen's portieres by Hester Prynne. I suppose that's the point as Musetta is about to make this act her bitch. However, given that Mimi and Rodolfo get about 6.7 minutes of being blissfully in love before it's all accusations and bloody handkerchiefs, seeing and hearing a bit more of them would not have gone amiss. (Of course, if Mimi wanted to be seen, maybe she should consider shopping outside the Marmee March "Mousy" line.)

Act III is a superficially simple set, but it does have the tough job of selling Rodolfo's master plan to ditch the ailing Mimi because he's so gosh-darn poor (as opposed to in Act I when, I guess, he was just darn poor). Of course the barrier at the city gate tells a story of its own. Hard times among our Bohemians have taken them from the artistic heart of the city, teeming with life and creation just before the intermission, to its very fringe. And the timing lends a hand. It's just barely dawn, and it remains to be seen if they've made it through another night. Pizzi's sets create these elements literally and then fray the edges even more. The guard's tower is stark, dark, and narrow: There is no warm welcome for those entering the city. The balcony above the tavern, which presumably opens off the Bohemians' new abode, is sagging, uneven, and jarringly domestic (it doesn't have laundry strung across it, but it feels like it should).

And Act IV has us back again at the garret, and it was not until we were back there that I realized that this might have been the same production that I saw in 2001-2002, but it was far from the same performance. I don't remember anything particularly jarring or glaring about the performance back then, but I don't remember anything striking either. The performances this year, under the direction of Renata Scotto, are outstanding, and I'm silly enough that I didn't realize it until I had tears streaming down my face as the curtain came down. Tears for Mimi.

I do not, as a rule, (AS A RULE) cry in public.
I certainly do not cry for Madame Drippy McDripp of the Drippy Brigade. I'd argue that I wasn't really crying for her anyway. I was crying for Musetta and her muff, for Colline (and his dynamite 'fro), for Marcello, and for poor, stupid Rodolfo who has fallen in love with such a dishrag that dead!Mimi is not easily distinguishable from alive!Mimi. Scotto's direction really sold these people as a chosen family, and their silly gestures in the face of death were profoundly touching.

Beyond earning that moment and those tears, I loved the attention to detail that contributed to it. For example, there are little, practical things that lend authenticity. I, of course, would have loved Andrea Silvestrelli's dynamite 'fro on its own prodigious merits, but other productions might have considered the group razzing Colline about needing a barber to be a throwaway. (As an unfortunate counterpoint, as glad as I was that Mimi doffed her shawl made entirely of hairballs harvested from my living room floor, it doesn't make much sense for our tubercular heroine, who is supposedly freezing, to remove any clothing, and it's not as though her dress is tempting Rodolfo with her sweet, sweet rack.) But in general the mechanics of the staging pay careful attention to the content of what's being sung.

Much becomes clear in Scotto's blurb in the Pompous Program:
For Scotto, the arias exist not for any sort of vocal display, but to reveal character: "'Che gelida manina' has become famous, but it's only because at that moment, Rodolfo requires an explanation of who he is. He meets Mimi, and the two need to talk about each other."

That attitude comes through in the blocking, in the way the singers use the space between them, in the acting, which holds the emotional line of the moment, even when the music is off on a motif that tells the audience who the person was or will be.

I'll be honest: It's primarily the friendships that flourish under Scotto's direction (hence the weeping on my part). Although the reviewers have been absolutely wild about Elaine Alvarez, there have been some shots taken at Roberto Aronica's (Rodolfo) acting. I will defend to the death the strength of his performance against Quinn Kelsey (Marcello), Silvestrelli (Colline), Levi Hernandez (Schaunard), and even Nicole Cabella (Musetta), so far as Rodolfo and Musetta ever interact. But the romance is a little tepid, though his grief and desperate, misguided hope in Act IV are top notch.

For the Inaugural Pompous Essay (well, inaugural to me: The season opened with Traviata, which I won't see until January), Roger Pines totally cheated. He wrote two short columns of his own text (and unlike our culturally deprived director in DC, he not only mentions Rent as a preexisting [and probably definitive] updated Bohème, he corrects poor, dead Jonathan Larson's Italian grammar in his title), then cribbed the rest from Henri Murger's original text. And I'm glad of it! It's quite hilarious:

Second Half

At midnight, M. Marcel, historical painter, will be blindfolded and will improvise in white crayon the meeting of Napoleon and Voltaire in the Champs Èlysées. . . At 12:30 o'clock M. Gustave Colline, in a modest state of undress, will imitate the athletic games of the fourth Olympiad. . . . N.B. Every person who would like to read or recite some poems will be at once thrown out of the drawing-rooms and given over to the police; you are also asked not to carry away the ends of candles.

In terms of the singing, I have to say that I was not so enamored of Alvarez as most seem to have been. I am extremely glad for her that she got the opportunity. I support 100% the ditching of Gheorghiu. And there were wonderful moments of brilliance in Alavarez's performance. During some of the talkier parts of the Mimi/Rodolfo interaction in Act I, her voice was breathtaking and she really brought Mimi alive. But. See, WMM does this fantastic impression of a turkey. And there is just something about Alvarez, smack dab in the middle of her register, that . . . has a syrupy, waddling kind of tone that reminds me of 'wench's turkey impression. I suspect that this is a Callas/Sutherland issue of personal preference. I also suspect that I am insane.

Aronica? Loved him. Absolutely. He was our Rodolfo back in 01-02 as well, and probably my lack of memory of him is not attributable to his forgetability, but to my lack of experience at that time. Kelsey? Loved loved loved him. And I especially loved his voice and Aronica's together and their stage chemistry. Silvestrelli + dynamite 'fro? Do I even have to say it? His voice, his gloomy, Eyeore-esque humor are perfect for Colline. Levi Hernandez got a bit of a slow start, but eventually really rounded out the quartet.

Nicole Cabell was a wonderfully warm, trashy-yet-stylish-in-her-way Musetta. Plenty of beauty in her voice to convey her command of her craft, and yet no fear of going theatrical as appropriate to the character. She and Quinn Kelsey stole the romantic show with their sizzling connection. In fact, Kelsey almost sold the charming off-stage domestic violence in Act II, as one genuinely believed that he was so passionate about Musetta that it drove him crazy. (And, interestingly enough, I really thought Aronica's trying to mimic Marcello's creepy possessiveness and then devolving into a weeping, terrified mess in Act III worked because of Kelsey's performance, which is decidedly informed by and dependent on Cabell's.)

Dale Travis was a better Alcindoro than Benoit, but I think that was deliberate. There was hacking and sneering through Act I that made you really want the boho boys to drive him the hell out. And he really does appear to have a large, stiff object in his rectum in Act II, which is quite a feat while wearing that coat (dig the cuffs and collar).

The orchestra was perfect, as they are almost without exception, and I was a little surprised that Sir Andrew was so late in making his curtain call. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure why it was a true curtain call (performers out on the apron, curtain down), so I wonder if the set strike had already begun or something to accommodate Monday's other operatic war horse. Anyway, I ain't so modern as I can't enjoy a warhorse, and I did enjoy this one, even before knowing about the dark days of its alter ego in our nation's capital.

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