From Rain to Snow to Mud

'La Bohème' at the Santa Fe Opera

I'd like to start with a PSA:

No one cares to hear your thoughts about an opera during said opera.

I wish I could have said as much to the dapper middle-aged man sitting next to me at opening night of La Bohème on Friday June 28, but talking even more would have simply added to the din of huffs, squeals, "huh"s, plaintive "aww"s and other ridiculous commentary spewing forth from that grown-ass adult the whole time (yes, even in the middle of arias). During the third act, I finally shot him a look that I guess was sharp enough to shut him up, but the first
three-quarters of my experience was less than neighborly.

When you attend an opera, you are not in your living room. You are not at a concert. You're not even at a Broadway show. You are at an opera, and you need to be largely quiet.

Now that that's out of the way … let's talk about La Bohème.

The opener for the Santa Fe Opera's 63rd season is an ambitious undertaking by director Mary Birnbaum, an attempt to breathe new life into Giacomo Puccini's oft-performed 1890s romantic tragedy. Now, I am not one of those folks who rolls their eyes at yet another staging of La Bohème (in truth, I really love it), but I do think there has to be a solid reason to put on such a potentially exhausted show, for the twelfth time in SFO's history no less, other than, "Its ticket sales will help keep the rest of the season afloat."

In that vein, I'm not entirely sure I know why this production came to pass.

Don't misunderstand; there were many lovely aspects.

Soprano Vanessa Vasquez' Mimì had a voice sweeter than crème caramel (as did tenor Mario Chang's Rodolfo, when you could hear him), Camellia Koo's costumes particularly for the ensemble made for an immensely pleasing visual experience, and conductor Jader Bignamini kept the Italian score lively where necessary, drippy with syrup elsewhere. Even Grace Laubacher's scenic design, which did have a few significant hangups, came from an inspired place; particularly the third act was delightfully atmospheric.

But largely, it was a piece in which you could see what the production team was trying to accomplish, while acquiescing that they didn't quite get there.

The cast's vocal performances were fantastic (if, as in the case of Chang, perhaps sometimes quiet). Their acting performances, however, lacked energy. The slapstick antics of the Bohemians in the first scene felt perfunctory and forced; an audience member listening carefully may have been charmed, but one watching closely likely wondered how much sleep the performers had gotten the night before. Didn't look like much.

Soloman Howard as Colline in particular should be singled out for his beautiful, thick bass tones, and Will Liverman's Schaunard was probably the most jaunty of the crew, but largely they left me feeling a bit tired. (Thank goodness for Dale Travis' funny and lecherous Benoit, the landlord; a small role for sure, but an extremely effective one that injected a little performance caffeine into the tiny attic apartment.) Marcello was made broody and tortured by the rich-voiced Zachary Nelson, and I was thankful for his performance as well.

In contrast to the perhaps draggy cast was Laubacher's aforementioned set, which exploded with elements and moving pieces to a dizzying extent. Especially overwhelming was the second scene, in which the action moves from the Bohemians' apartment into the Parisian street outside the Café Momus, complete with Parpignol's toy cart, ice-skating sweethearts and a boisterous parade moving through. For the most part the first three acts worked, if they weren't a bit busy by way of set design; however, the whole thing kind of fell apart in the fourth act (no pun intended). A very long and silent scene change from a tavern back into the glass-walled Bohemians' apartment was excruciating (but the audience waited very politely, even my rude neighbor), and a heavy-handed effect in the very last tragic moment of the story hit like a brick. No spoilers, but you can't miss it.

Ambition was the name of the game here, and the theme of states of water was one of Birnbaum's intended motifs. At a short talk at a dress rehearsal for this production, Birnbaum expressed the desire to look at liquid in act one through rain; ice in act two through ice-skaters; snow in act three through what ended up a small and awkward snow machine; and a slow thaw in act four, though perhaps not one that is particularly welcoming, given the plot points.

Those ice-skaters most notably featured Musetta, portrayed by Gabriella Reyes, who looked positively shaky on rollerblades. The idea of the flashy (and I do mean flashy as her sequined romper was a sight to behold) singer blasting onstage on wheels is a fun one, and something I was excited about in theory. In practice, however, I was just amazed she was able to sound so good while seeming so ready to fall down. It was yet another almost-there ambitious move that compounded with other almost-there ambitious moves to create something that does come along with the desired act-four thaw: mud.

I do admit to wanting certain things from this production—a danger when, really, it should be viewed with fresh eyes and ears. I went in particularly salivating for the famous aria, "Che Gelida Manina," in which Rodolfo says to Mimì by way of introduction: "Who am I? I am a poet. What do I do? I write. How do I live? I live."

As it turned out, I longed to tap Vasquez on the shoulder and let her know Chang was talking to her; she was distracted and not even looking at him for much of it, and he seemed to rush through these lines that feel so integral to their characters' buildup to sublime romance. I recognize the heavy weight of anticipation coloring my disappointment—but man, I still wanted that moment to be so much bigger.

In all, it's impossible for La Bohème to not be beautiful. I mean, it is what it is; so this production was indeed a pleasure to listen to and often a feast for the eyes. But like luxuriating in a lush field of wildflowers with a screaming pack of second-graders a few yards away, despite the glory, there were a few unavoidable things I just wish could have been different.

La Bohème

Eleven performances through Aug. 24. $42-$320. Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900

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