In a season where we’ve been hammered by political name-calling and divisive fearmongering, the threat of climate change and global terrorism, and protests and gun violence in hometowns across America, it is an emotional salve to return, if even for an evening, to the world of Giacomo Puccini’s young Bohemians. La Bohème reminds us of a simpler time and the tenderness and recklessness of young love. Nobody can deliver Puccini better than Glimmerglass.
This is my sixth summer visiting Glimmerglass Festival, and every year I’m impressed by the thoughtful programming that balances traditional and contemporary opera as well as showcases cross-over musical theatre. The productions are augmented by readings, cabaret, artist talks, and often an exhibition at the jewel of the Fenimore Art Museum. Sadly, this year I will miss the spice provided annually by Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, drawing out the legal conundrums and themes in operatic scenes that are sung by the Young Artists.
Last week, my “weekend” started with one of the most beloved works in operatic repertoire. Not only is La Bohème a great way for young singers to secure cornerstone roles under their belts, but audiences being introduced to opera often fall, as I did, for this as for a first love. It’s a no-brainer for opera companies. (The Metropolitan Opera alone has presented over 1200 performances since 1900.)
How can one not love it? There is no grandstanding here; there are no elephants, gods, queens, and larger-than-life madwoman scenes. Nothing strains credulity.
Young kids meet in a garret where four guys share shabby digs. Some are fast friends, some fall in love. They go out on the town for some fun and stiff an old man for drinks that they can’t afford. They entertain themselves, tease each other, and hold each other up through jealous ranting and lovers’ quarrels. They’re quixotic and, like most young people, can be self-absorbed. The two girls pine for baubles and a finer life. The boys – a writer, a painter, a philosopher, and a dancer – dream of artistic achievement. But they hang together – pawning their last precious items trying to get medicine and a doctor to save their sick friend, Mimi. They watch, helpless, as Mimi succumbs.
Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has been on a mission to create a stable for young American artists to grow not only their individual craft but advance the craft and demands of acting and singing for today’s opera. No young director gets this vision more than E. Loren Meeker, who directs this production splendidly, mining the intimate moments, sweetness, and the humor found in youthful high jinx and courtship rituals of the story.
Meeker and her design team have gone back to the original bohemians of Toulouse Lautrec’s café scene of the mid-1800’s. (There’s an exhibition at the Fenimore Museum down the road which shares some of Lautrec’s sketches and most famous poster designs – featuring local characters such as Jane Avril and the rakish Aristide Bruant, whose oversized black hat and red flamboyant scarf flung over his shoulder has become such an iconic image. You mustn’t miss it.) Seeing the exhibition, I could relish even more the Lautrec touch realized on the Glimmerglass stage, including a couple of orange-haired and black-stockinged women of the night.
Even Musetta gets a Lautrec treatment. When this dazzling coquette wants to get her estranged beau’s attention, singer Vanessa Becerra, in full public display at an outdoor café, pretends a foot injury and draws up her skirt to reveal scandalously her black stockings and can-can red petticoat which she waves in his face so to enrage the “bull” Marcello. Her taunting naughtiness and his eyes, nearly popping out of his head as he sweats and tries to contain his blood boiling-over, are just part of the marvelous comic moments of the evening.
Indeed, Meeker is supported by a terrific cast. I remember seeing Raquel González sing the role of Mimi in Washington National Opera’s production a few years ago. Then she was to me “a little Puerto Rican singer from Lawrence, Kansas” with “milky translucent skin and a voice like the famed singer Mirella Freni.” Her voice, like her performance in the role, has grown even richer and more poignantly beautiful. I believe that González is the simple, working girl, awakened to love by the romantic artistic life Rodolfo and his pals represent. She gets swept up in their carefree lives as they thumb their noses at conventions and the reality of their poverty. To her detriment, for she hasn’t their constitution, she denies the severity of her condition and thinks she will be freed of her tubercular cough by love.
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
closes August 27, 2016
Details and tickets
Hunter Enoch is a wonderful Marcello. He plays full tilt into this contradictory character, both passionate and fiery and at the same time hitting notes of feigned cynicism. There’s a wonderful moment when he uses this to such advantage, strongly advising his friends, Rodolfo and Mimi, that they can’t possibly stay together because they are too serious and emotional. Not moments later, he loses his cool, caught up in a shouting match with his own lover Musetta. Enoch manifests an impressive rich baritone that he colors to suit each moment.
There are two exceptional singers from the Young Artists Program at Glimmerglass who more than hold their own in this almost perfect cast. They exemplify that new school of opera singer and musical “triple threat,” as graceful on stage as they are expressive in voice. Becerra moves from self-absorbed coquette, grabbing what she can of life as it goes by, to a sensitive and caring friend. Her Musetta seems the one in this production who brings the whole group back together. Brian Vu plays Schaunard, the dancer. Every time he enters, he grabs center stage, a true exhibitionist. In the boys’ scene cavorting as dancers, he demonstrates he is the real thing. His is not just physical presence but vocal size and an irresistible ability to draw audiences into his character. His intelligent choices are seen throughout the production.
Rhys Lloyd Talbot, also from the Young Artists program, carried the deep bass part in the quartets and sextets with success. His solo, delivered to his threadbare overcoat, is one of the most unusual arias in opera, and doubly challenging as it is sung in the middle of a death scene, but he was most affective. Most of all, I believed in his physicality as a somewhat goofy and aloof, spectacled philosopher of the group. Perhaps more than any of the others, there was something authentic about his performance as a reincarnated young French radical of that period.
Michael Brandenburg played Rodolfo, and his was a quirky if finally satisfying portrayal of this leading role. In his first aria, he proved that he had that ability to hit a tenor’s high pitch with such throbbing intent that he sends shivers and then in the next instant almost dizzyingly plunges recklessly down the scale. He was most affecting in the second scene, playing the odd little game of not being able to find Mimi’s lost key, and soon thereafter making me believe he was captivated by this lady’s simple affection and purity, perhaps her need to be taken care of. Their first duet was absolutely lovely. Later I thought his voice began to tighten up top. He began to shrink physically, his chest cave in – clearly a choice – maybe overwhelmed by cold, the burden of poverty, and being overwhelmed by not being able to save Mimi. It took me awhile to adjust, because it wasn’t like the romantic tenor performances I’ve seen. But upon reflection, I see there was a courageous and unique arc Brandenburg was creating. I believe his Rodolfo gave us the heartbreaking disintegration of youthful dreams. He allowed himself to be crushed by and to retreat from life and love. Nothing more heartbreaking than such moral and spiritual caving in.
Much of the design was glorious. Erik Teague designed beautiful costumes and wasn’t afraid to pull off a traditional look to the production with just enough Lautrec spunk. Robert Wierzel, a magician with light, caught both the cold look of the garret and the rosy-gold world of the café scene, then back to a dark world of glittery cold. I also thought the romantic skies he affected aided the emotional changes in the opera. The most effective “ah” moment in the production was the transition between Scenes 1 and 2, when before our eyes the ugly garret’s beam (a monstrous metal isosceles triangle that seemed out of scale and style with the rest of the show) thankfully flew up out of sight and in dropped an entire café scene complete with striped awnings and banners. In twenty seconds we were magically transported.
The company pulled out the stops in the scene that unfolded with David Moody masterfully creating a big chorus sound aided by the happy inclusion of Tracy Allen’s children’s chorus. Eric Sean Fogel choreographed a bustling scene, that was happily lifted into drenched Technicolor.
The company was not so successful with the clunky change in Act II when in deadly silence the garret beam was flown back in. Pause, pause. We waited.
This was an unabashed production of romanticism, and, with the lush and unforgettable melodies of Puccini, conducted beautifully by Joseph Colaneri, it evoked the Belle Époque, seen mistily as if a youthful long ago. As the friends gathered around he cold body of their friend, I felt, as never before, this was tragic opera marked not just by a single death but that the age of innocence had ended. So quick bright things come to confusion.
La Bohème . Composed by Giacomo Puccini . Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa . Conducted by Joseph Colaneri . Stage Direction by E. Loren Meeker . Conductor: Joseph Colaneri . Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel . Scenery: Kevin Depinet . Costumes: Erik Teague . Lighting: Robert Wierzel . Projected Text: Kelley Rourke . Hair & Makeup: J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova . Produced by Glimmerglass Festival . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.