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A Shining Night in San Diego

San Diego
San Diego Opera
01/30/2010 -  and February 2, 5, 7, 2010
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo), Ellie Dehn (Mimì), Jeff Mattsey (Marcello), Priti Gandhi (Musetta), Malcolm MacKenzie (Schaunard), Alfred Walker (Colline), Scott Sikon (Benoît/Alcindoro), Chad Frisque (Parpignol), David Marshman (Customs Guard), Christopher Stephens (Sergeant), Spike Sommers (Child)
San Diego Opera Chorus, Timothy Todd Simmons (Chorus Master), San Diego Symphony Orchestra, Jeff Thayer (Concertmaster), Dorothy Randall (Principal Pianist), Karen Keltner (Conductor)
E. Loren Meeker (Director), John Conklin (Scenic Designer), Martin Pakledinaz (Costume Designer), Steven W. Bryant (Wig and Makeup Designer), Michael Whitfield (Lighting Designer)

(© Cory Weaver)

Today we might call them hippies, but in the 19th century they were likely called bohemians. Henri Murger’s play of 1849, La Vie de bohème, lay foundation for Giacomo Puccini’s fourth opera, La Bohème that brilliantly captures a slice of life of selected artists living in Paris in the mid 1800s. Although the press was unimpressed, the audience responded approvingly at the premiere in Turin, Italy on February 1, 1896. Today, La Bohème continues to be a major draw and is a clear example of genuine verismo.

In this opening night of San Diego Opera’s 2010 season, the entire cast is ready and willing. Karen Keltner conducts meticulously and provides a strong foundation to the drama and action on stage. A favorite amongst Puccini scores, Ms. Keltner’s enthusiasm shines through the orchestra’s perceptive playing, knowing when to step up and back off the dynamics without competing with the singers on stage.

Under the direction of E. Loren Meeker, there is a certain crispness and energy felt the moment the curtain goes up. John Conklin’s craftsmanship in Act I is splendidly presented with all the accoutrements inside a little garret in the Latin Quarter, bathed in muted grays while Parisian roof tops rest pleasingly in the background.

San Diego Opera inaugurates the new year with a blockbuster start, featuring Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo. Mr. Beczala’s jump to fame is, in part, credited to his replacing Rolando Villazón during The Met’s 2009 production of Lucia di Lammermoor. After singing the role twice, Mr. Villazón had to withdraw which led to the subsequent performance being that of The Met’s live telecast of this famous Donizetti opera. Thousands then witnessed the extraordinary singing of this Polish tenor. In every sense of the word, it is a joy to hear Piotr Beczala singing the lead male role in this Puccini opera. Vocally, his voice carries brightness, a brilliant sparkle and a rhythmic lilt to every note in the score while his acting is palpable. He’s in top form.

Minnesota native Ellie Dehn makes her initial appearance in this La Bohème, and she sings substantially in the role of Mimì, the frail and dying seamstress in love with Rodolfo. Nonetheless, a certain amount of fragileness is somewhat lacking and a sense of disconnect exists dramatically despite the fact that her tessitura is well suited for this Puccini work.

The Café Momus set is artfully colorful and reminiscent of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the influences of this avant-garde artist are magically displayed with Michael Whitfield’s discerning lighting, supporting the moment’s mood of gaiety and frivolousness. At this time we are introduced to the flirtatious Musetta, beautifully dressed in a bumblebee yellow dress with black trim. Priti Ghandi does a superb job with acting and antics, in this, her premiere with Musetta, but there is also a degree tentativeness vocally as she is currently experiencing a vocal change from a mezzo soprano to a soprano that encumbers her.

The second act would not be possible without the children’s chorus and toy seller, Parpignol. Once again Timothy Todd Simmons leads this vignette of innocence. The kids are animated and responsive to the happenings on stage and Chad Frisque adds a touch of comical entertainment in his colorful costume and animation.

Having garnered Tony® awards in costuming for the Broadway revivals of Kiss Me, Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie, we are delighted to see Martin Pakledinaz’s creations move to the other side of the country with eye catching, pinpointed fashion which transports us back in time to the appointed setting in the mid-19th century. Likewise, the mastery of Steven W. Bryant in the wig and makeup department heightens each actors’ sensitivity and allows the production to move up another notch by developing a more acute sense of each individuals’ character identity. This contributes and supports the full meaning of verismo. It is adroit.

We return to the second tier of characters who, without their existence, would be a worthy La Bohème. Marcello, Schaunard and Colline formulate a camaraderie that adds to the pathos and realism on stage. Jeff Mattsey’s rendition of Marcello is very effective and the voice carries in confident fashion. The other two cast members, Malcolm MacKenzie and Alfred Walker, project with stalwart singing and tasteful lightheartedness. They are the added ingredients to a recipe behind how living the bohemian life really is and how each one supports one another.

If you’ve never been to an opera and are contemplating a bold move to the Civic Theater, this La Bohème is a carefully tutored and thoughtfully executed production. It has every aspect of emotion and runs the gamut in musical sophistication. La Bohème is an opera that will, undoubtedly, strike a nerve in every audience member differently. Perhaps that is why it is an all time favorite in the opera world. This cast is cohesive and connected, one that provides a charismatic spark to each and every one of us.

Christie Grimstad



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