Shannon Hall is home for the weekend for a memorable La Boheme
One of the British comedienne (and wannabe Wagnerian soprano) Anna Russell’s greatest lines was “That’s the beauty of opera…you can do anything…so long as you sing it!” The original context was in her monologue about the absurdly incestuous relationships among the principals of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” but the line was recalled Sunday afternoon at Shannon Hall in Act I of Puccini’s perennial hit, La Boheme.
After all, University Opera’s Mimi, Shaddai Solidum turned out to be singing…for two.
It’s one thing to promote audience growth for the arts; it’s another to actually be growing your audience during the performance. Happily, Solidum was still the best singer on the stage all afternoon, her 8-month pregnancy (according to a reliable source) notwithstanding. Without that unforeseen circumstance (unforeseen by certain audience members such as yours truly) the headline would have been that UO director David Ronis had moved his kids down the block to the still relatively new, very much still exciting, Shannon Hall at Memorial Union.
One knows going in that La Boheme will score points on the strength of the music alone; one has to mess it up pretty badly not to elicit some heart-throbbing responses along the way. But of course in order to really hit the mark, one needs a combination of a strong lead couple, three more guys whose stage presence- camaraderie needs to match their vocal abilities, a coquette who can do a little more than flirt her way through her big number, and a conductor whose orchestra not only can play the notes, but create a cogent flow out of Puccini’s motivically rich score.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have a director to both coax and balance overtly naïve romanticism with equally romantic notions of the joie de vivre of youth.
I’ll resist the pedanticism of a report card grade; let’s just summarize with granting above average marks all around, and perhaps crucially, the ability of the performance on Sunday to grow in intensity and maturity in the final two acts.
It all begins of course with the Rodolfo and Marcello, the poet and painter who are half-starved and chilled to the bone in their Paris garret. (The original story is c. 1830, it’s often staged c. 1896, the year of the work’s premiere, but Ronis and his set designer, Joseph Varga, did a fun staging set in the mid-Roaring Twenties).
Soon enough, poet and painter are reunited with musician and philosopher, and we were treated to some real fun. The immediate vocal standout was Matt Chastain in the role of Marcello; only Nicholas Damiano as Schaunard seemed a notch below his colleagues in vocal confidence, but the foursome won our laughter with their banter and turns of mood.
When Mimi comes upon the scene, we quickly learned that Solidum can let high strong notes emerge with an unforced bloom whether sitting, standing or pretending to search the floor for a lost key. Benjamin Liupaogo as Rodolfo hits all his notes, but generally seems focused on making a strong sound as if to prove to us that he has the notes; what he lacks at this early stage is that “secondary” confidence to shape the phrases without worrying about losing his line.
The basic framework of the set was easily accessorized to present the street in front of the Café Momus for Act II, and this is where get the last major supporting player, Katie Anderson as Musetta. She carries herself with just the right touch of self-entitlement, and better still knows how to freshen a warhorse number like “Musetta’s Waltz” without falling into tried and true cliché. This is the place to mention the smart costumes of Sydney Kreiger and Hyewon Park; they added some nice flapper touches and Christmas Eve festivity in the crowd scenes (although the purportedly perpetually broke guys looked a little too smart in their vests and slacks in Act I!).
It is in Act III that we get to the heart of the matter, Rodolfo being exposed as not a jealous lover, but hiding the truth about Mimi’s illness since he cannot care for her properly. The 25 minutes unfold like a symphonic slow movement, and here is where conductor Chad Hutchinson really showed his hand. The orchestra had played well from the beginning, but now we had a true union of ensemble and voices, phrasing and color. This was my first chance to experience his work since he came to the Mead Witter School of Music as adjunct professor, replacing the long-tenured James Smith; tough shoes to fill, but based on this initial sampling, the young maestro is off to a strong start. Toward the end of the act Mimi sings “I wish winter would never end.” One couldn’t join her in that sentiment (especially given the great weather forecast for the upcoming week)—but we could wish at least that Act III would never end.
But then we would never have had that reliably cathartic ending. The final act opened with more superb singing by Chastain, then one last dose of male-quartet high jinks. The cataclysmic mood shift occasioned by Mimi’s arrival never fails to jolt—and then we were treated to one of those minor touches of mastery that often gets swallowed by the surrounding pathos. As each of Rodolfo’s friends find a way to leave him alone with Mimi, Colline sings a moving paean to his beloved coat. At face value it sounds almost silly, but anyone who has seen the opera knows what a little tear-jerker it can be. Puccini stunningly shifts the mood without breaking it, but the salient point from Sunday’s performance was the loving rendition by Benjamin Schulz-Burkel. He is a known commodity from his graduate days here of course, but it is always gratifying to see him back onstage, although his principal duties these days are administrative, as the assistant director of the Mead Witter School of Music. It is oh so easy for anyone in the role of Colline to just gobble up the spotlight at last, after nearly four acts of hearing nearly everyone else around him get to belt something out. But Schulz-Burkel exhibited an artistic maturity to match his rich voice; again some degree of collaborative credit are undoubtedly due Ronis and Hutchinson and the orchestra.
Of course the denouement rushes upon us soon after that last emotional rest stop, and it was at the moment that Mimi receives her much-desired muff that lighting designer Sruthi Suresan created a glow, part sunset, part dying embers; pick your metaphor. It ebbed ever so gradually as Mimi’s life slips away, and suddenly it was all over except for the deserved ovations.
Again we have been given much to look forward to; certainly it is unrealistic to see University Opera in Shannon Hall every season, but we can hope that it becomes a semi-regular occurrence. The greater lesson from Sunday’s performance however is this: wherever Ronis and his “kids” show up, the audience is in store for some memorable opera. The national awards and recognition that the program are consistently earning are richly deserved, and our town is clearly the richer for what these folks are giving us.