Aug. 21, 2017
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See It: Get Così with La Bohème

July 4, 2007, 12:00 am
First nights offer fanfare and flops.

9 pm
Wednesday, July 4
Various times and dates Through Aug. 25***image1***

9 pm
Friday, July 6
Various times and dates
Through Aug. 24

Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285,
Seven miles north of Santa Fe

Bonnets, muffs, overcoats, poisoned parrots: It's a mighty materialistic universe that the impoverished Parisians of Puccini's La bohème inhabit. Nonetheless, the Santa Fe Opera's solid new production knows where the real action is, in youthful energy and yards and yards of fulsome, familiar lyrical melody.

This isn't a knock-your-socks-off Technicolor Bohemia. Slightly grimy might be a better word for it. Director Paul Curran sets the action near the end of the First World War in a gray Paris where-in the Café Momus scene, anyway-the gaiety seems hectic and the colors washed out. The troubled liaison between Mimí and Rodolfo? It's a case of love clutching for love in a sad, dark time.

Still, gloominess is never a real issue, given the vibrant reading by conductor Corrado Rovaris, a man whose propulsive energy and understanding of the score create a performance whose excellence is more than just the sum of its parts. Rovaris made his debut with the SFO in 2004, leading a triumphant opening-night Simon Boccanegra. His Bohème has similar warmth and generous gleam.

Jennifer Black, last season's Micaela, makes a lustrous-voiced Mimí with a gift for floating pianissimos, notably in a memorable Addio, senza rancor! No timid, virginal consumptive here, this Mimí knows exactly what she's about, from "losing" her key to dumping Rodolfo for a wealthy, if invisible, suitor.
Thus, Rodolfo seems less the self-serving cad. Gwyn Hughes Jones sings him with more energy than finesse, especially in the gusty conclusion of Act 1. Still, the Welsh tenor combines a powerful, confident upper register and sound technique with a gift for deft phrasing, occasionally marred by that Italianate semi-sob.

Most Musettas deliver a show-stopping Quando m'en vo, and dynamic Nicole Cabell is no exception. She's big-voiced and brassy, and if you want exquisite nuance, look elsewhere. But strip away the scarlet tenue, ditch the tiny arm-dog, add bananas, et voila: it's Josephine Baker!

Her much put-upon suitor, Marcello, is capably sung, vigorously enacted by Corey McKern. That boisterous third-act quartet comes across with verve and precision. And thanks to Curran's light comic touch, the often tiresome high jinks of the four Bohemian boys, Marcello, Rodolfo, and their sidekicks, Colline and Schaunard, seem fresh and youthful.

A young Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov, makes a fine impression as Colline, far less dour than usual, and Markus Beam's Schaunard is a big kid with a big heart. As their bibulous landlord, Benoit, old SFO hand Timothy Nolen happily devours more than his share of the scenery.

Kevin Knight's unspectacular, clever stage design functions smoothly. The company's decision to present the opera in only two acts demands a straightforward, more-or-less unit set putting the emphasis less on how this show looks than on how it moves, and Curran makes sure it's a movin' piece of work. Take that souped-up second act finale, for example. It makes a glorious noise, populating the stage with a surfeit of choreographed mayhem. It may not be Les Miz, but if you think you're on 42nd Street, who could blame you?

Likewise, if you wish you were elsewhere than at the SFO's current Cosí fan tutte, who could blame you? On the surface, the revived 2003 production of Mozart's cruel comedy is a quick, bright thing, for a while anyway. Then, uh-oh, you realize that what you see is all you're going to get, and it's a banal superficiality at that.

The glitzy hall-of-mirrors set looks smashing for about 15 minutes; the pouty self-indulgence of the two besieged sisters grows wearisome quickly; the boys' reverse wooing challenge becomes a tedious bore. Eventually we don't give a damn about what happens to the stick-figure lovers. There's neither heart nor soul to be found in this hapless show.

And that's despite the solid leadership in the pit of William Lacey, a talented Mozartean, as we heard last season. Veteran singers, Suzanne Mentzer as Despina and Dale Travis as Don Alfonso, perform well, too-though I prefer a heftier-voiced Alfonsetto. Katherine Goeldner makes an excellent, full-throated Dorabella, and Mark Stone's Guglielmo is a study in swagger.

Susanna Phillips, the Fiordiligi, had a rough, off-pitch opening night, though. Her monster aria, Come scoglio, suffered from strident high-notes, a nearly
inaudible lower register, and messy passagework. Norman Reinhardt as Ferrando, her mock suitor, also disappointed with an uptight, costive reading of Un'aura amorosa. But the real villain-in-charge is director James Robinson.

Così offers its young protagonists plenty of heartbreak: It's a harsh sentimental education and a deeply human one. What this show substitutes for humanity is sophomoric jokiness and simple-minded schtick. Mozart's opera may be a masterpiece of misogyny, but it's a masterpiece. To fade to black, to resolve the action with bitterness and anger, as here, is a cop-out-one that the music denies. Just listen.


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