Monday, April 6, 2009

Opera review: Second-cast 'Boheme' understated but effective

Timothy Mix as Marcello and Carelle Flores as Musetta
in the Palm Beach Opera production of Puccini's La Boheme.

By Rex Hearn

WEST PALM BEACH -- As a boy of 10, I could sing Che gelida manina, Rodolfo’s aria from the first act of Puccini's La Boheme, using my own invented words that I thought sounded like Italian.

Such is the genius of Puccini: Tune after tune penetrates even very young brains, where they remain, only to be brought to life by hearing a single chord or experiencing some other sense memory of this powerful and popular opera.

The Palm Beach Opera's second cast of its current production of La Boheme is a young one, and overall on Saturday night they gave an understated performance with fine acting and singing. And while the stage direction of the legendary Italian soprano Renata Scotto offered some indelible freeze-frame tableaux, it was as an ensemble that this cast of singers impressed.

Singing Rodolfo was the American tenor Christopher Bengochea. He has a sensitive delivery, in a well-supported voice that has a delicately sweet timbre. Occasionally I detected a slight tendency to push in the upper range, which was soon overcome once his nervousness had departed.

Resident artist Susan Jean Hellman sang the soprano lead of Mimi. At first, Hellman’s nerves almost took charge, with tremolos here and there in her entrance aria Mi chiamano Mimi. However, she settled down to give a very fine performance.

Her beautiful soprano, delicate as required at times because she is dying of consumption, won the audience's general approval, difficult though it may be for healthy American sopranos to appear consumptive in this role.

Baritone Timothy Mix gave a solid account of his role as Marcello, the painter. At times Mix tended to bellow, which spoiled his overall performance. Bass Eric Jordan was excellent as Colline, the philosophy student who sells his overcoat to buy medicine for Mimi. Jordan won warm approval for his last-act aria, Vecchia zimarra, with his deep bass proving to be very pleasing on the ear.

Baritone Christopher Bolduc, as Schaunard the music student, amused greatly with his Act I tale of playing to a parrot; his singing and acting were secure with his fine flexible baritone.

Also, thanks to Scotto’s deft direction, the Act IV Bohemian hijinks were droll rather than hammed up, a far-too-common occurrence just before Mimi's last entrance. Scotto, though, got it just right.

Carelle Flores, as the coquettish soprano, Musetta, did not have the feistiness that this role demands. A dramatic soprano was needed with more heft in the voice. Flores' voice was too sweet to be convincing, try as she might to overcome this with overacting.

Bass Stefan Szkafarowsky doubled as the landlord Benoit and sugar daddy Alcindoro, and he was good in both parts. Evan Ferrar was all commedia dell'arte as the toy seller Parpignol, chasing children who pinched his toys. The children’s chorus was excellent, as was juggler Tim Irwin.

The Palm Beach Opera chorus and orchestra were also on top form in this production, and conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan kept a firm grip on the forces massed in front of him on stage and in the pit. I trust he’ll be invited to return ; he was very good.

David Gano’s lighting, on the other hand, was disappointing. Gloominess saturated every scene, and hardly a spotlight illumined the singers' faces in duets or ensemble work. It is all well and good to create mood with lighting, and Gano obviously does this well, but the audience must see the singers' faces. Both can be achieved without sacrificing one to the other.

Rex Hearn is the founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, the only professional summer opera company in Massachusetts, which has just completed its 24th season. He has been reviewing opera in southern Florida since 1995.

La Boheme closes today at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach with Hellman and Bengochea in the lead roles. The performance begins at 2 p.m. Tickets, if available, range from $23-$175. Call 833-7888 (Palm Beach Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravis) for tickets or for more information.

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