La Bohème. Maestro: Anthony Barrese. Singers: Raquel González (Mimi), Todd Wilander (Rodolfo), Ashley Kerr (Musetta), Keith Harris (Marcello), Jean Carlos Rodriguez (Schaunard) and Lawson Anderson (Colline). Opera Tampa Orchestra and Chorus.
Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème started with a feud in the early 1890’s between him and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d composed the immortal Pagliacci (1892). At that time this short opera was better than anything Puccini had written, including his earnest yet muddled Manon Lescaut (1893). So Leoncavallo was no slouch and definitely a formidable competitor. Nevertheless, Puccini’s La Bohème prevailed and quickly became one of the immortals in the repertoire while Leoncavallo’s version, although successful in its day, sunk into obscurity and is rarely performed today.
Can there be a better way of finding the answer than attending a performance of La Bohème? That I did recently at Opera Tampa. First of all, those who have heard of it but not experienced it insist it (and all verismo opera) is merely sentimental, a great one admittedly, but a bit tearjerky. Listening to opening scenes with the men in this cast, as they banter back and forth and toss ripostes at each other, quashes that misconception. It soon becomes clear that Puccini had realized that, in adapting the play La Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger and Théodore Barrière, he needed to carry the sparkling dialogue and brazen attitudes into to the opera to give it dimension. The scene in which Rodolfo, Schaunard, Colline, and Marcello outwit Benoit the landlord is deftly staged, with lively gestures as well as hearty stage laughter. You realize that these are Belle Époque artists in front of you and that they are loyal friends to each other. They may be stereotypes, but most of the time they are richly drawn ones .
As Rodolfo, Todd Wilander presents a conflicted character, slightly deceptive when he needs to be, such as in his first scene with Mimi, the “lost key” scene. His tenderness is apparent in arias like “Che gelida manina” and soars most notably in that famous and rapturous duet at the end of Act 2, “O soave fanciulla.” Yet he is also jealous and possessive.
Wilander ‘s and Raquel González’s vocal skills drive the opera throughout, never flagging in their lyrical intensity. Other characters also shine, and you never get the feeling that they are just supporting members. Their contributions are just too notable. As the vain Musetta, Ashley Kerr delivers the epitome of braggadocio with her brilliant aria “Quando me’n vo’soletta.” She later holds her own in the best quartet of the opera, Act 3’s “Soli d’inverno è cosa da morire!” This one is such a study in contrasts. As Musetta and Marcello rant furiously at each other, Mimi and Rodolfo passionately declare their love. It’s wondrously performed scene and precisely blocked, so that it becomes a visual treat as well.
As Colline the philosopher, Lawson Anderson sang well, even though he wasn’t paired with a feisty, passionate soprano. For example, his touching farewell to his overcoat “Vecchia zimarra, senti,” was doubly poignant because the audience knows he’s doing it out of altruism for the dying Mimi. Plus there is depth and poignance in his poetry:
“Receive my thanks./You never bent your threadbare/back to the rich and powerful/. . . each in his own way/let us put two acts of charity together.”
The only criticism I have of this production, and it is a minor one, is that The Straz stage manager should have used body mics (A.K.A., lavalier mics) on the singers. Sometimes a stage mic fails to pick up the subtleties of a singer’s aria, particularly if there is significant orchestral accompaniment lurking in the background. Lines were dropped in a few scenes because a head turned the wrong way and it was a bit jarring. Lavalier mics would have solved that. I have noticed that whenever they are used, they are most effective, such as in several of my Blu-ray opera recordings.
The ending was heartrending and I felt the tears well up once again, as they have many times before and as I always expect them to. Puccini knew how to induce intense emotional reactions in his audience, and did it well time after time. Most likely Leoncavallo’s La Bohème failed because he didn’t.