Unintended drama can't stop `Boheme'

Review: Traffic delays opening curtain, but Baltimore Opera's iffy start is forgotten by the big finish.

May 01, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In an age as cynical as ours, the sad and simple story of Puccini's "La Boheme" must be awfully hard for some folks to take. They're wise to movies and TV shows that try to manipulate us into feeling all squishy. Such an obvious emotional-button-pusher as "Boheme" doesn't stand a chance with people like that.

The rest of us, though, make no apologies for responding to an opera that, after more than a century on the hit parade, continues to hit home.

All we require is a production that believes in "Boheme" as much as we do. Baltimore Opera provided just such a production Saturday evening at the Lyric Opera House.

Although the start had to be delayed to accommodate patrons and musicians stuck in traffic from a highway accident, and although (perhaps for that very reason) it took a while for the performance to come together, the end result was convincing and involving.

Under John Lehmeyer's direction, the cast conveyed the camaraderie of young, hand-to-mouth bohemians, each pursuing an elusive dream while remaining firmly planted in reality.

Lehmeyer's concept of the opera's central couple, flower-embroidering Mimi and poetry-spinning Rodolfo, makes them a little earthier than we sometimes find them. From the get-go, it's clear they're interested in more than sharing a few high notes together.

This Mimi knows exactly what she's doing knocking on Rodolfo's door on Christmas Eve, and even kicks up her heels when she gets the hot date she's after. And this Rodolfo makes no secret about the purpose of having a mattress on the floor of his garret.

When, later, Rodolfo drunkenly confesses to his buddy how badly the affair with Mimi is going, his vulnerability comes through even more clearly.

Lehmeyer applies other effective touches. One is the rain storm he creates in the middle of the second act, a great excuse to get the chorus of shoppers off the stage for a moment so we can focus our attention on the principals.

Too bad the director capped that act by sending the singers out into the theater for the big parade; that device got old on Broadway some time ago.

And it's strange that Lehmeyer doesn't take a few cues from the score in the first act. For example, when the music tells us that Rodolfo should be sprinkling water on Mimi's face to rouse her from a faint, the director has the poet sit there, and the seamstress suddenly wake up on her own.

More problematic, though, is Mimi's death scene.

The whopper of a cough near the end and, worse, the final breath, recall vaudeville exaggerations. Maybe this is soprano Inessa Galante's idea. If so, it's her only miscalculation. Her portrayal of Mimi has deepened considerably since I saw it in the same production a few years ago with another company.

Her disarming way of starting "Mi chiamano Mimi" is particularly delectable, with that little wave of the hand when she sings "my story is a brief one."

Vocally, Galante has ripened, too. Yes, the tone can be steely at times (and was decidedly flat at the peak of the Act 1 duet), but most of her singing had admirable warmth and nuance. Her keen instincts for molding a phrase made the farewell aria of Act 3 exceptionally affecting.

Cesar Hernandez, as Rodolfo, started out tentatively, his voice sounding small and not quite focused at the top, but the tenor grew in confidence and interpretive intensity.

Jeffrey Kneebone's Marcello was solidly and sensitively sung, and incisively acted.

Nicolle Foland resisted the temptation to belt out Musetta's famous waltz, caressing it instead with her silvery soprano while perched atop an upright piano.

Smooth support came from James Bobick (Schaunard), Franco Federici (Benoit/Alcindoro), and Raymond Aceto (Colline), who needed only a little more tonal richness for the coat aria.

The chorus made a well-balanced, mostly well-coordinated effort. Michael Yeargan's quaintly old-fashioned set works neatly, though more elbow room in Act 2 sure would help.

Conductor Andrea Licata couldn't always get everyone's attention; several passages found stage and pit operating on slightly different wavelengths. Much could be forgiven, though, in light of Licata's thoughtful phrasing, his way of pacing conversational passages with a natural flow, and giving the score's most rapturous or reflective moments plenty of breathing room. The orchestra hit a few bumps, but, at its best, responded with vibrant, fully-engaged playing.

`La Boheme'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore

When: 7: 30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday; 8: 15 p.m. Friday, Saturday (alternate cast); 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $112

Call: 410-727-6000

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