Saturday, April 4, 2009

Opera review: Musicianship distinguishes decent PB Opera 'Boheme'

Alessandro Liberatore as Rodolfo and Norah Amsellem as Mimi in Palm Beach Opera's La Boheme.

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- Ask an opera fan for a favorite Puccini aria and you'll get different preferences for the songs that stand out in the fabric of the drama, from Vissi d'arte to Un bel di and Nessun dorma.

But the Italian master was in a fundamental way an ensemble composer who brought together the lines of divergent characters and choruses with a skill only matched by Mozart, and keeping that in mind might be the best way of judging the Palm Beach Opera production of La Boheme that opened Friday night.

This Boheme, with sensitive, canny stage direction by the legendary soprano Renata Scotto, is notable not for any star turns but for the high level of musicianship and solid singing by its central characters. Friday night's large audience was warmly appreciative but not especially enthusiastic, a recognition that there were no knockout performances; still, the cast gave a moving, often absorbing reading of this opera, which still sounds fresh 113 years after it first hit the boards.

As the doomed seamstress Mimi, the French soprano Norah Amsellem demonstrated that she is above all a very fine singing actress, someone who is always performing her part in the context of the drama, not suddenly forgetting it when it comes time for the big high notes. Her voice, which sounded modest at first, revealed its considerable heft and power when the action called for it; she waited an extra beat or two in Mi chiamano Mimi before slowly unfolding the lines about how the first springtime was hers, and then you could hear Amsellem's voice for the big, polished instrument it is, taking the high As with ease and strength to spare.

She did something similar in the Act III aria Addio, senza rancor, opening up the full range of her darkly colored voice at the climax, with some truly beautiful, powerful singing as she tells Rodolfo to keep the pink bonnet in memory of their love. She also was excellent in the Act IV moment just before Mimi's death, singing the reminiscence of Che gelida manina with short but not showy gasps, a pointed reminder that this is a character whose lungs are giving out. This was a well-sung, well-acted, believable Mimi, a person of fragility and passion for whom we feel compassion, and one of the most musically adept readings of the character I've heard.

The Italian tenor Alessandro Liberatore, making his U.S. debut as Rodolfo, has one of those classic spinto voices, an exciting sound that is quite suited for characters with extravagant emotions. And he made a fine Rodolfo, with a strong, ringing sound that was impressive in all the set pieces from the two Act I arias to the Act IV duet with Marcello. His acting was decent if somewhat stiff, making his best impression in the tenderness with which he lifted Amsellem in Act IV and returned her to the couch.

Liberatore also paid welcome attention to detailed musical matters, singing the ending of Act I as written rather than going for the showy high C along with Amsellem, and in the couple high-register instances in which his voice gave him trouble, he navigated into the safe waters of his falsetto with skill and dexterity.

Returning to the role of Marcello for Palm Beach, baritone Timothy Mix gave an excellent performance, offering an attractive, weighty sound that blended beautifully with Liberatore's in the O Mimi, tu piu non torni duet of Act IV. As an actor, he was sometimes unfocused; his Marcello needs to be more volatile to make his tempestuous relationship with Musetta credible.

As Musetta, the young Carelle Flores demonstrated good vocal chops, showing no trouble sailing up to the high Bs of her Quando m'en vo aria in Act II, nor in seizing the moment of that aria and commanding attention. Her total performance hadn't quite gelled Friday night, however; her first entrance was too demure, and while she was attractively diva-like as she got under way, she needed to show more contrast in Act IV as she shows the other, nurturing side of the character.

Flores could have used some help from the rest of the supporting cast in Act II, which looked very nice in good sets by Robert Little (originally for Binghamton, N.Y.'s Tri-Cities Opera), but the chorus looked crowded rather than bustling, and there was an odd lack of ensemble energy that left the act flat and flaccid rather than sparkling. That didn't help Flores, who needs to ride the hum around her and top it with an unforgettable entrance. But Act II as a whole was disappointing Friday night, with a weakly sung Parpignol (Evan Farrar), decent but listless chorus work on the part of adults and children, and basically little to no sense of the excitement of a big city on Christmas Eve.

In the other supporting roles, Eric Jordan's stentorian bass made a distinctive Colline, though he was slightly under pitch during his Vecchia zimarra aria in Act IV. Baritone Christopher Bolduc was an attractive Schaunard, and the four Bohemians worked well on stage together, though the clowning in Act I was much better than Act IV, where the poker-swordfight was much too cautious. The best supporting work may have come from Stefan Szkafarowsky in the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, both parts which he fully inhabited and sang with distinction.

Scotto's stage direction, with the exception of the ineffective Act II, is highly intelligent and has some nice touches such as adding a coquettish artist's model at the opening for Marcello, and a muff that falls to the floor at the end, giving Schaunard another clue as to what's happened to his friend's paramour. Her focus is on making the Mimi-Rodolfo relationship initimate and persuasive, and in that she succeeds, in particular at the end of Act I, where the new couple is arm-in-arm but only interested, not aflame. (Scotto took a curtain call Friday night to strong applause.)

This is a good-looking period production with everyone in full Louis-Philippe splendor, good sets in all acts from Little, and tasteful lighting, especially at the very end, from David Gano. On Friday night, the scrim stayed down for all of Act III, which was either a design choice or an error; if it was deliberate, it's a bad idea and should be rethought.

The orchestra, featuring some of this area's best freelancers, was first-rate, beautifully and stylishly handling all aspects of this eclectic, brilliant score. Conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan did an exceptional job, carefully partnering with each singer, most effectively in the big wellings-up in the major arias, but also keeping a firm hand on music whose mercurial mood shifts are so essential to the impact of what remains the most popular opera in the world.

La Boheme continues through Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Tonight's performance features Susan Jean Hellman as Mimi and Christopher Bengochea as Rodolfo. Amsellem and Liberatore return Sunday afternoon, and Hellman and Bengochea are on stage Monday afternoon. There is also a special abridged family performance this afternoon at 1 p.m. featuring the Palm Beach Opera's resident artists. Tonight's performance starts at 7:30 p.m., Sunday and Monday's performances begin at 2 p.m. Tickets, if available, range from $23-$175; tickets for the family performance today are $25 for adults, $12 for ages 13 and up, and $5 for children 12 and younger. Call 833-7888 (Palm Beach Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravis) for tickets or for more information.

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