Puccini’s “La bohème” in Santa Fe, 2007


Photo by Ken Howard.

Review by David Gregson of Puccini’s La bohème: Santa Fe, August 25, 2007.

According to all accounts, August has been a hot month in Santa Fe. You might say, “Well, what did you expect?” But in my 12 years of visiting the summer opera performances, I can remember warm nights, hot nights, rainy nights, windy nights, terrific thunder-stormy nights, and even some downright chilly nights when you were happy you brought a sweater along. This time it was just hot – at least for the performances of August 21, 22, 23 and 24, the nights I attended. A little welcome wind and even some romantic distant lightning materialized on the 24th, but that was it this trip for weather variety.

Normally I try to take in all five operas in repertory. This year personally exasperating circumstances forced me to miss poor old Daphne turning into a tree in the eponymous opera by Richard Strauss, but I managed to hear Puccini’s La bohème, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Rameau’s Platée and Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul, on consecutive nights and in that order.

Daphne (1937) is a favorite of mine, although I can never see it without thinking of the Freudian comments of a psychiatrist friend of mine: “Daphne’s transformation into a tree – a metamorphosis that protects her from the reality of sexuality – is actually a projection of the composer’s desire not to be seduced by the Nazis. Or rather, it’s a form of denial. ‘Those are not Nazis all around me,’ Strauss is saying. “I’m not a Nazi like them! I’m a tree.’”

Famous for its world premieres and daring repertory, Santa Fe Opera is not the first place a connoisseur would think of traveling for an old lovable warhorse like Bohème. Truthfully, I always dread the familiar standards in this house. I believe, and with good reason, that the management stages its Carmens and Butterflys in order to fill seats when ticket sales for offbeat repertory do not quite bring in the necessary revenue. So – I never expect too much.

And yet, I have been surprised over and over again.

So, this Bohème, already a veteran of several cast changes since it opened in July (see below) and the subject of an apparently disastrous live big-screen video transmission, turned out to be not so bad and I was moved by it. On such a toasty Santa Fe evening, the sight of impoverished artists trying to keep from freezing in their Paris garret created an amusingly incongruous impression. (Imagine dressed up in winter clothes and trying to sing in hot weather at 7000 feet!) But the two big leads maintained their sang-foid and pleased vocally against a variety of odds.

Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, for instance, has the vocal goods, but even under the hand of Paul Curran (who directed the big SFO success of 2005, Peter Grimes) she failed to project much authentic charm – or even much stage savvy. Impeccable Italian was, of course, a strong suit. One craves actual Italian ladies in these big Italian roles!

Meanwhile, her Rudolfo, good looking New York tenor Dimitri Pittas, obviously has theater in his blood – but you keep wishing that with all he has going for him he could lose some weight! Looks are more and more important in opera these days! Meanwhile, Pittas has plenty of voice, with a fine ring to it. He has a way to go before he is a dream Rudolfo musically.

California soprano Nicole Cabell turned in a persuasive performance as Musetta. A pretty woman with a fine figure (just right for Musetta) and lots of voice-plus-high-notes, she nonetheless has to overcome a certain chilly hauteur that comes with some aspects of her natural bearing. One does not warm up to her easily, but she wins you over in the end. Perhaps this was all method acting!

The rest of the bohos were more than respectable: Russian basso Alexander Vinogradov as the philosopher, Colline; American baritone Markus Beam as the musician, Schaunard; and American baritone James Westman, rather fine as the painter, Marcello. Texas baritone Timothy Nolen, a performer who knows his way around better than anyone else in the cast, was hilarious as the comical landlord, Benoit. Tall American basso Wilbur Pauley did his best as the wealthy sucker-for-love, Alcindoro, but he seemed physically an odd choice for the part.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris was most underwhelming, failing to keep a brisk, shapely pace to the whole (as Sir Thomas Beecham could do so easily), and occasionally being inattentive to the needs of the singers. The sets were so far removed from the ones at the Met that “There must be more money!” kept flashing in the Supertitles of the mind. On the other hand, they made excellent use of the less-than-flexible stage spaces, and the way in which the dreary attic/garret popped down after Act One and popped up after Act Three was most ingenious. Stage director Curran made the most of everything, always with an eye to practicality and narrative clarity.

(Further season reviews will appear as they become available.)

La Bohème
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Text by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème
Sung in Italian

Performance dates
June 29; July 4, 7, 13, 20, 30; August 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, 21, 25

Conductor: Corrado Rovaris
Director: Paul Curran
Scenic and Costume Designer: Kevin Knight
Lighting Designer Rick Fisher

Mimi, a seamstress: Jennifer Black (June 29-July 20):Serena Farnocchia (July 30-August 25)
Rodolfo, a poet: Gwyn Hughes Jones (June 29-July 13); Dimitri Pittas (July 20-August 25)
Musetta, a singer: Nicole Cabell
Marcello, a painter: Corey McKern (June 29-July 13)
James Westman (July 20-August 25)
Schaunard, a musician: Markus Beam
Colline, a philosopher: Alexander Vinogradov
Alcindoro, a state councillor: Wilbur Pauley
Benoit, the landlord: Timothy Nolen

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