An Intoxicatingly Beautiful, Richly Human Bohème

United StatesUnited States  Puccini, La Bohème: Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, Seattle, 23 & *24.2.2013 (BJ)

Marcello: Michael Todd Simpson, *Keith Phares
Rodolfo: Francesco Demuro, *Michael Fabiano
Colline: Arthur Woodley
Schaunard: Andrew Garland
Benoit/Alcindoro: Tony Dillon
Mimì: Elizabeth Caballero, *Jennifer Black
The Prune Man: Neil Jordan
Parpignol: Tim Janecke
Musetta: Norah Amsellem, *Jennifer Zetlan
Customs Officer: Glenn Guhr
Sergeant: Craig Grayson

Carlo Montanaro (conductor)
Tomer Zvulun (director)
Erhard Rom (set designer)
Martin Pakledinaz (costume designer)
Robert Wierzel (lighting designer)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup designer)
Beth Kirchhoff (chorusmaster)
Philip A. Kelsey and David McDade (musical preparation)
Jonathan Dean (supertitles)

Little did I think that I would ever be calling a production of La Bohème one of the major triumphs in Speight Jenkins’s three-decade tenure as general director of Seattle Opera. But the production that opened on 23 February, directed by Tomer Zvulun and conducted by Carlo Montanaro with flair and perceptivity in equal measure, has persuaded me that the work is not merely immensely popular but a much greater opera than I have previously thought.

Montanaro’s leadership blends the voices on stage with surgingly—sometimes even startlingly—zestful work in the orchestra pit in a way that makes Puccini’s score more intoxicatingly beautiful than any performance I can remember. Meanwhile, from the dramatic point of view, Zvulun’s deployment of his two casts throws new light on the humanity of the piece.

Deplorable though the four Bohemians’ behavior in the first two acts may be, in bilking their landlord Benoit of his rent and sticking Alcindoro with the bill for their Café Momus jaunt, what comes over most strikingly in this staging, in both pathetic and exuberantly hilarious moments, is the genuinely warm friendship the four young men share. This is a vindication of the view that any decently humanistic moral code should be viewed not as a facile distinction between black and white, but as an infinite range of shades of gray.

Zvulun’s direction, inventive and richly human, presents only one newly devised touch that leaves me in two minds. At the end of Act III, instead of leaving the scene, Musetta comes back to Marcello in a quick embrace, and he carries her into the tavern and rapidly shuts the door, while Rodolfo and Mimì are left to walk off into the mist. Does the idea jar against the desolate sadness of the moment? Or does it underline, by heightening the contrast between the destinies of the two couples, the bittersweet blend of experiences that life itself often entails?

Maybe the answer is that it does both—and that is enough to justify its invention. A few moments earlier, by the way, I was glad to see that Jonathan Dean, who wrote the excellent supertitles, had amended what, when I first saw it seven years ago, might well have been taken for a deliberate joke. In the company’s 2006 production Rodolfo, emerging from the tavern, observed to Marcello that “No one can hear us here” in tones so stentorian they could hardly have been missed on the other side of Paris; Dean’s new version, “We can speak privately out here,” makes much better sense.

The visual aspect of the production, played in the late Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, held over from the company’s 2006 staging, is magical. Originally designed by Seattle native Erhard Rom for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the set for the first and last acts daringly leaves open not just the front of their room but much of the back wall also, imaginatively revealing a fascinating Parisian panorama. The Café Momus set, easily accommodating Beth Kirchhoff’s splendid chorus, and the scene for the chilling third act, lit with wonderful subtlety by Robert Wierzel, provide perfect contrast. And the qualities any Puccini opera needs to overwhelm its audience—great singing and acting—are in unstinting supply.

Of the two lead tenors, Francesco Demuro offers the more appealingly youthful and Michael Fabiano the more seductively assertive Rodolfo, and both sing gorgeously. There are similarly valid shades of difference in the two singers playing Mimì: on opening night, Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero, pouring forth a stream of glorious tone, showed us more of the character’s inner strength, whereas Jennifer Black on the Sunday, with no lack of vocal power, nevertheless came closer to the familiar image of a profoundly vulnerable young woman.

As the first cast’s Marcello, Michael Todd Simpson—his reactions to Musetta’s tempting in the café scene vividly and touchingly human—perhaps realized the humor of the part more comprehensively than Keith Phares, but the latter was vocally superb and dramatically excellent in a less demonstrative manner. Norah Amsellem and Jennifer Zetlan provide two dazzlingly attractive and vocally accomplished Musettas, graduating convincingly from gold-digger to sympathetic friend. It’s good to find, in Colline, company stalwart Arthur Woodley’s sumptuous bass voice put to use for once in a relatively youthful role, Andrew Garland contributes a neatly played and agreeably sung Schaunard, and all the smaller roles are satisfyingly filled.

I can confidently assure anyone planning to attend one of the remaining eight performances that the so-called “gold” and “silver” casts are for once equally thrilling and equally devoid of weak points. This is emphatically a Bohème not to be missed.


Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.