San Diego Opera’s Drive-In La bohème Surprises and Delights
By Mary Ellen Clark, Guest reviewer
As a self-professed “opera nut,” I have almost always associated live opera performances with travel. 2019 was a banner year – Le Postillon de Lonjumeau at the Opéra Comique, Don Pasquale at the Garnier, Otello at the Bastille, Norma in Toulouse, Agrippina at Covent Garden, Barber of Seville at Chicago Lyric, Manon Lescaut in San Francisco – all culminating in November with ten days in Sicily attending obscure Italian operas in tiny Baroque theaters. The last live opera I attended was La Favorite in Houston in February of this year.
By contrast, 2020 has been a wasteland for both travel and live performances of all kinds, so of course I was thrilled to learn first of the drive-in Mainly Mozart concerts this summer, then of the drive-in La bohème currently being presented by San Diego Opera at the Pechanga Arena parking lot. I think it is safe to say that SD Opera could have presented almost anything and it would have been warmly received by the local opera-starved audience. But what a wonderful surprise was in store for me! An excellent live performance with real singers and a real orchestra!
This production was a slimmed-down 90-minute version with no intermission, and featured a 24-member orchestra positioned at the side of the stage and led by SD Symphony conductor Rafael Payare. There was no outdoor sound system; the music was broadcast to car radios via a special FM frequency, and video with subtitles appeared on (smallish) video screens.
The seven singers performed admirably, and with a surprising degree of unison. (There was no chorus; the crowd scene at the Café Momus in Act II was eliminated.) The singers performed spaced apart on the stage – no embraces.
Notable among the performers was tenor Joshua Guerrero in role of Rodolfo. His clear, ringing tenor and excellent diction – combined with boyish enthusiasm – were just what was needed in this outdoor setting. Ana Maria Martinez as Mimi made her company debut, replacing Angel Blue who had withdrawn several weeks previous. Martinez is well-known to many of us for her numerous appearances in Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and myriad international stages. The nuance and subtlety of her performance were remarkable, and even on an outdoor stage her incredible slow pianissimos were breathtaking, most notably in the Act III duet, “Addio, senza rancor,” and in her death scene in Act IV.
Alexander Birch Elliott and Andrea Carroll as the bickering Marcello and Musetta were the perfect foils for the doomed lovers. Their lively stage manner lifted the production out of the pathos from which La bohème often suffers, and, at least for me, represented a “life must go on” attitude to the suffering and illness that surrounded them. Because of the numerous cuts made to achieve a 90-minute run-time, the roles of Schaunard and Colline were greatly reduced. We scarcely got to know them at all, but Colin Ramsay as Colline delivered a memorable “Coat Aria,” one my favorite parts of the opera.
The production, directed by Keturah Stickann, was balanced and well-calibrated, leaving the audience feeling that they had attended a performance crafted with care and flair. This drive-in opera was a first in the Company’s history, but hopefully SD Opera’s commitment and creativity will continue to surprise and delight us in the coming months, providing the wonderful tonic of live music that we all value and love so much.
La Bohème continues at 7:30 on Friday, October 30 and Sunday, November 1 at Pechanga Arena, 3500 Sports Arena Bl., San Diego.Information at http://sdopera.org
Ana María Martínez: Mimì
Joshua Guerrero: Rodolfo
Andrea Carroll: Musetta
Alexander Birch Elliott: Marcello
Colin Ramsey: Colline
Robert Mellon: Schaunaurd
Scott Sikon: Beniôt/Alcindoro
Keturah Stickann: Stage Director
Rafael Payare: Conductor
Members of the San Diego Symphony