SAN DIEGO: January, 31
Review by David Gregson
“Betchawa” is the way you say his name, I’m told. I’ve had it wrong before. It’s spelled Beczala. Full name, Piotr Beczala. He’s Polish and one of the best lyric tenors singing today. And he also happens to be playing the romantic lead of the poet Rodolfo in San Diego Opera’s current production of Puccini’s “La bohème" which opened the company’s 2010 International Season last night in Civic Theatre. People will want to know how to say the name of that guy they really liked.
Beczala. It’s like the great fictional “oltrano” Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced Mardew Gorgeous) – or the actual Lithuanian-Polish coloratura soprano Miliza Korjus who promoted her career with the slogan, "Korjus rhymes with gorgeous". I don’t suppose Beczala can do anything so catchy.
Beczala is certainly one of the major reasons for taking in this SDO offering. It has a strong cast: American soprano Ellie Dehn as Rodolfo’s lover, the doomed seamstress, Mimì; Indian-born soprano Priti Gandhi as the flirtatious and maddening Musetta; American baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as the musician, Schaunard; American baritone Jeff Mattsey as the painter, Marcello; American bass-baritone Alfred Walker as the philosopher, Colline; and American bass-baritone Scott Sikon as both the state councilor Alcindoro and the bohemians’ landlord, Benoit.
There are also the now familiar set designs of John Conklin – and some unusually intelligent stage direction by E. Loren Meeker. In the pit we have the canny conductor Karen Keltner leading a San Diego Symphony that sounds ever-more polished in performance after performance these days.
That the whole show failed to connect with this reviewer is undoubtedly just another one of those inevitably subjective judgments of any individual listener who loves opera.
As much as I admire Keltner’s work, I felt her “Bohème” needed more propulsive drive and even some healthy schmaltz. Many dramatic moments did not register very high on the Scoville or Richter scales, and the last act dragged as if Keltner were lost in a reverie over the beauty of the music. Despite the excellent stage direction, nobody in the cast seemed to be giving it their all.
Both Beczala and Dehn sang well and with gorgeous voices, but nothing was pushed to the point of heartbreak. It was not, as Ethan Mordden would like to call it, “demented.” Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s merry roommates worked extremely well in ensembles, but nobody stood out on his own, even Colline (Walker) in the famous farewell to his coat.
The one exception was Priti Ghandi in Musetta’s “waltz,” always a scene stealer anyway. And Meeker figured out lots of amusing things for her to do in the Café Momus. But Conklin’s sets for Act II differ from the rest in not being the least bit realistic (that is to say, they are a giant collage of French posters) and they force a large group of performers into a relatively narrow and undefined area downstage. It’s a messy traffic jam, especially when the band comes marching in. It’s a little difficult to stay focused on who’s actually singing. Most of the folks in the audience are multi-tasking, of course – taking in the projected text above the proscenium and keeping track of who’s singing what.
While Michael Whitfield’s lighting designs are surely altogether appropriate from certain perspectives (the designs, except in Act II, being largely washes of light that suggest the season or time of day), at a distance they make it hard to see some of the faces clearly without opera glasses. Old fashioned follow spots and footlights appear to be O-U-T, but surely there must be some way to make the players more visible to people in the cheaper seats. Since the introduction of HD opera broadcasts, it’s even more frustrating to have to strain to make out facial expressions – and not just because the performers are far away but because their faces just are not illuminated well enough.
It does not take an opera expert to know when an evening is simply sensational. Everything has to click. The audience goes nuts. With so many good things going for it, perhaps this show will spring to life before the end of the run – just three more performances.
All performances in San Diego Civic Theater
Saturday,January 30, 2010 at 7 PM
Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 7 PM
Friday, February 5, 2010 at 8 PM
Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 2 PM
San Diego Opera’s 45th International Season opens January 30, 2010 with Giacomo Puccini’s "La bohème" last performed by San Diego Opera in 2005.
The production features the company debut of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodlfo. Also making her debut is soprano Ellie Dehn as Mimì.
Soprano, Priti Gandhi, will be Musetta; baritone Jeff Mattsey, Marcello; bass-baritone Alfred Walker, Colline; baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, Schaunard; and bass-baritone Scott Sikon as Alcindoro and Benoit.
San Diego Opera’s resident conductor Karen Keltner conducts.
Director E. Loren Meeker will making her Company debut.
Sets are by John Conklin.
Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz.
More information at San Diego Opera website