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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Bohemian Grotto, Bohemian Grove

COMPARING CONTEMPORARY NEW YORK CITY with Belle Époque Paris is convenient insofar as income disparity obtains, and living conditions for artists still require great sacrifices. But we don’t see much death our daily lives, an insulation that gives a story like “La bohème” a touch of remoteness. But not much. Packing the rest of its canvas are the big emotions: Love, jealousy, ambition. “Opera is big, bigger than the spoken theater, bigger than life” said Leonard Bernstein in his wonderful 1958 Omnibus program “What Makes Opera Grand?” “And what makes it bigger? Music, sung music.”

Raquel González and Michael Brandenburg
 Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Discussing the opening of the third act of “La bohème,” Bernstein notes that it’s “not exactly a plot to set the world on fire.” But, after it’s performed to music, he asks, “Do you find yourself caring about the story? Of course you do. Why? The addition of perfectly glorious music. But it’s not just any glorious music. It is carefully planned by a theatrical wizard to take the characters and magnify them for us.”

Emotions are big, conflicts are simple, characters are drawn in deft, quick strokes. How best to suit this 120-year-old opera, considered a masterpiece by most? In the manner chosen by the Glimmerglass Festival to open its current season: big, simple, drawn in deft, quick strokes. It’s not a present-day piece – that’s the business of “Rent” – but it still packs a wallop when the production lets you believe that it speaks for itself.

There’s a lot of work that goes into producing such seeming simplicity. The orchestra thrives on a score like this, so when music director Joseph Colaneri gave the downbeat, they simply inhabited the score, proving a lush partner to the singers as each nuance was accompanied with care. Colaneri has a long history with the piece. It shows by virtue of the ensemble’s easy virtuosity.

We’re in a garret, of course, but Kevin Depinet’s design gave us a spare, airy space whose low attic roof is suggested by outsized crossbeams, a Fragonard sky glowing beyond. Here a quartet of artists huddles in the chill, with impulsive painter Marcello (Hunter Enoch) and dreamy poet Rodolfo (Michael Brandenburg) ready to sacrifice art for mere warmth. Enoch’s rich baritone well suits his character’s bluster; tenor Brandenburg, seen here last season as Macduff in “Macbeth,” has a lighter, less-dimensional sound. His first-act “Che gelida manina” was nicely done but lacked the bravura element we’ve come to expect. He was up against soprano Raquel González as Mimi, who owned the stage with “Mi chiamano Mimì” and rather dominated the “O soave fanciulla” duet. Which, it can be argued, was good for characterization, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect.

Young Artist Rhys Lloyd Talbot, who was memorably good as the Speaker in last season’s “Magic Flute,” returns as philosopher Colline, and Brian Vu sang the musician Schaunard, both of them ably supporting their scenes and skillfully dancing to Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography.

González draws focus merely by smiling and sitting still, as she did in Act Two’s street festival whirlwind. But that’s when we meet Musetta (Vanessa Becerra), a firebrand forever setting her cap for another man, to Marcello’s continual distress. The full-view set change into Act Two was done with the aplomb of a journeyman plate-spinner, setting the chorus in motion even as a city square came to life. There’s plenty of room for comic stage business, which too often is overdone, but director E. Loren Meeker kept it all in plausible character so that even the outsized antics of Musetta’s paramour Alcindoro (Dale Travis, who skillfully doubled as landlord Benoît) made sense – and earned laughs.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
But this level of happiness can’t be sustained, and the second half – Acts Three and Four – begins the downward slide of suspicion and jealousy into, you guessed it, death. Mimi can’t believe that Rodolfo no longer wishes her to live with him (o, the sins of those Bohemians!) and seeks Marcello’s advice. Masterfully accompanied by falling snow in both the music and the props department, the scene reveals Rodolfo’s true concern, even as Musetta and Marcello fight their way into another falling-out. It’s a brilliantly written scene, layered with musical complexity, and the performances by all concerned coalesced into very convincing theater, becoming the rare moment when you forget you’re in a theater seat.

But death is ever near, as we’ve known all along but refuse to accept. Musetta escorts the dying Mimi back to Rodolfo’s garret (each abandoning a new lover to do so), where the artists are gathered. As rituals of denial play out at Mimi’s bedside, the music reminds us of the past as only music can, even as every audience member familiar with the piece is reminded of a past “La bohème” experience. Mine are aural; I grew up listening to the Toscanini (who premiered the piece) and Beecham recordings, which boast powerhouse singers. But a live-theater encounter is its own more complex entity, drawing life from the immediacy of being immersed in a theatrical journey. We are surprised when a seemingly unwarranted death plays out like this, and we are united in sorrow, confusingly touched with exaltation. This is the kind of relentlessly effective production that rewards “bohème” veterans and newcomers alike. The production plays in repertory through August 27, 2016.

La bohème
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Based on “Scènes de la vie de bohème” by Henri Murger.
Joseph Colaneri, conductor; E. Loren Meeker, director
Glimmerglass Festival, July 8, 2016







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