By Pat Launer
The standing ovations started before the performance began. When San Diego Opera Chief Operating Officer Keith Fisher and Board President Carol Lazier took to the stage of the Civic Theatre, the full house (3,000 strong) gave them a rapturous welcome. Those two had spearheaded the Save San Diego Opera campaign last year (Lazier kicking off the fundraising with $1 million of her own money) when the company was slated for closure.
The energy was high at the opening of the new season, which marked the San Diego Opera’s 50th anniversary.
The second tumultuous response came when conductor Karen Keltner joined the performers for their curtain call. After 33 years on the job, this is her final opera as resident conductor of the company, and the audience roared its appreciation and farewell.
So, departures and new beginnings. And the revisit of an old friend.
La Boheme was the first opera performed by San Diego Opera in 1965, and it’s been revived regularly ever since (this is the 11th time). This is a new mounting for the company (a co-production of the English National Opera and Cincinnati Opera), directed by Isabella Bywater, who also designed the set and costumes for the 2010 Cincinnati production, and this one.
In this re-imagining of Puccini’s beloved classic (which was dubbed “a triviality” when it first opened in 1896), the program reads “19th century Paris” for the setting, but it looks very much like the 1930s, which allowed director Bywater to become a bit playful, with the toy seller Parpignol (Enrique Toral), dressed as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
The bleak gray, black and white set is a 2-story apartment, positioned way back on the stage. The surprisingly light second-story garret overlooks the rooftops of Paris. With the help of a team of men, the set effectively revolves to become the street of Christmas revelry, where the Café Momus resides, attractively adorned with a flurry of snowflakes.
The sentimental story, based on a popular novel Scenes de la vie de Boheme by Henri Murger, is all about tempestuous young love among bohemian artists, specifically: the writer Rodolfo and flower embroiderer Mimi, who seek the poetic high of romantic attachment; and the more earthbound, argumentative Marcello (artist) and Musetta (singer).
The voices are potent, with a vibrant (though perhaps unnecessarily large) chorus for the lively street scene in Act II (the chorus master is Charles F. Prestinari). The four male bohos are delightful in their jocular interactions in Act IV.
Handsome tenor Harold Meers has played Rodolfo several times (in Sarasota, Minnesota and Des Moines), but his voice soars less than the others’, and he’s not helped by the upstage location of the garret. In duets with the silver-voiced soprano Alyson Cambridge as Mimi, she often overshadows him, but he does well with the men. He has just the right floppy-haired leading man look; by contrast, Cambridge is perfectly wan, thin and pallid as the dying Mimi. Their final duet is heart-rending.
Passionate soprano Sara Gartland makes for a saucy, leg-baring Musetta. Among the men, the standouts are baritone Morgan Smith (Marcello) and sonorant bass baritone Christian Van Horn as the philosopher Colline, who’s superb in his fourth act ode to his overcoat (Vecchia zimzrra).
Under Keltner’s baton, the orchestra captures the mellifluous lyricism of the music, with its lovely, memorable melodies. The supertitles (Ian Campbell/Charles Arthur) are overly contemporary at times (“a slacker of a miserable old stove”?), but the storytelling is clear and the emotions aptly overblown.
In sum, a sturdy, if not a stellar “Boheme.” Kind of like Sand Diego Opera’s first foray. After the local premier production in 1965, Alan Kriegsman wrote, “No one expected it to be the Boheme to end all Bohemes… but it was certainly an enterprise in which everyone can take enormous pride.”
Welcome back, San Diego Opera. May you have a long, healthy and prosperous next 50 years.
- La Boheme runs through Feb. 1 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. in downtown San Diego
- Performances are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday (sold out)
- Tickets ($45-$290) are available at 619-533-7000; www.sdopera.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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