27 October 2006: Puccini, La Bohème

Commonwealth Opera, at the Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Massachusetts. Directed by Ron Luchsinger, the Opera’s new artistic director. Conducted by John Eels.

This most familiar of operas was given a fine, spirited, and very compet­ent production by this thirty-one-year-old company, in the theatre right in the middle of downtown Northampton, long bearing the name of our erstwhile pres­ident, “Silent Cal,” who once had law offices here; his desk and office door are preserved in the Coolidge memorabilia room in the Forbes Library, the town library, just up the hill. The Calvin was purchased by some entrepreneur a couple of years ago and extensively rehabilitated (it had been for a long while a down-at-heels, shab­by cinema showing $1.00-a-head movies) and made into a lovely, just short of sumptuous, venue for roadshows of all descriptions — pop singers, rock bands, and so on — while providing a welcome space for local groups. It seems to have succeeded very well, as part of a continuing, long-term revitalization of North­ampton that began a couple or three decades ago.

I have not been able to see many of Commonwealth Opera’s productions in the past, partly because of out-of-town professional obligations in October or November, and partly because I had a sense, from reviews and general scuttle­butt, that they didn’t do very good work, and had inadequate resources. As a result of last night’s opera I am going to have to change my mind. Richard Rescia, the Opera’s founder and first music director, has been retired for a while, and they have brought in various others to take the helm, with what seems to have been indifferent success. To judge from the production design, staging, and mus­ic­al embodiment, the new artistic director, Ron Luchsinger, is little short of a god­send to this company. Using semiprofessional and, in key roles, second-or third-tier professional singers, Luchsinger mounted a consistently engaging, musically satisfying two-and-a-half hour production of Puccini’s masterpiece.

Taking his cue from the conversational verismo style in which the composer cast his opera, Luchsinger set it in 1920s Paris, certainly a defensible and satisfact­ory choice, with the added benefit that costumes — a combination of new des­igns, pulls from store, and a number of local clothes closets — were more readily available. Mimi’s pink hat, for example, a present from her lover Rodolfo, was a simple knit affair, one-size-fits-all. As for the settings, they were in the form of minimalist, small-scale set pieces: the door and its frame, the table, a modest chaise, an artist’s easel, miscellaneous chairs; additional props to suggest a café, a city street, a gatehouse, were added or substituted in subsequent acts. a projec­tion against the upper wall, which would be closed off by a traveler curtain, lent a more general sense of urban life. That was all, and it was just fine, especially when the crowded streets of Paris are brought onto the stage, with numerous extras including children — and a standout little girl in a lacy party frock who could not have been more than nine years old, doing a lively dance in time to the spirited music, nicely managed throughout by John Eels, who has lots of operatic experience.

The singers were just fine too, in an opera with much opportunity for ensem­ble singing, along with great duets and solos. Jonathan Carle, who has sung Don Giovanni in regional opera and comparable roles, looked and sounded quite right as Marcello, the chief baritone role. Victor Khodadad was less compelling as the lead tenor, Rodolfo; his voice has the range to high C, though that top note seemed slightly insecure, and his timbre lacked a real ringing quality that might have given him more success in roles like this — the Pavarotti repertoire, let’s call it. But to have a tenor this good in a major role in the local opera company’s two-performances production was nonetheless very pleasant and satisfying.

The two chief female roles were even better. Nicole Ameduri, tall, blonde, and very well built, a young and very able soprano, was the soubrette, Musetta, and she played it to the hilt. It’s a very satisfying role, no doubt. Puccini, follow­ing the arc set by his libretto, gives her much to do in Act II, in which we follow her ascending steps from one well-heeled lover to the next, as her former lover Marcello chafes and pretends not to notice. As Musetta goes up, Mimi, in a countervailing dramatic movement, goes down, reduced in Act III to hiding behind a tree and overhearing Rudolfo declare her a goner, and finally brought back to the bachelor flat by Musetta herself, who has a goodly streak of gold in her marble heart, as it turns out, and who has searched for Mimi long and hard and finally found her, now dying, on the street.

What a sad, sad story! And yet Puccini keeps up the pace of the action to the end. In a nice, dramatically effective moment, Rodolfo does not know just yet that Mimi has expired, though we do — in a time-tested tactic of dramatic irony, pathetic irony as it should be called here. Luchsinger has Mimi on a small-scale chaise down left center; the Calvin stage is large enough for the other characters, including Rodolfo, to be eight or ten paces away from her, in the up center or up right areas of the stage, grouped together, still, almost frozen in their anticipation of the dreaded certainty about to occur; and then it occurs and they don’t know it, until Colline moves again to her side to look at her, discovers she is dead, and turns to the others — wordless, as it were. Only then does Rudolfo understand that she is gone and cry out, in his agony of loss, “Mimi! Mimi!” And the opera is over in a minute more.

So: a death scene, expected from very early on in the opera, managed beauti­fully, in a tactful and understated way, by Puccini himself and, in his footsteps, the stage director. Luchsinger lends a naturalness and ease to the blocking of char­acters, and even in the big crowd scene of Act II the groups were mostly smooth-flowing and asymmetrical. I only noticed once or twice that a group of chorus singers were lined up in a straight row — and that’s a natural tendency (“natural” in another sense) for chorus singers; there’s a security in that that comes from years of singing in glee clubs and choirs. But that lasted only mom­ent­arily, and the flow of life, exuberant, joyful, holiday life, moved on.

This was the first of only two performances, the second to be given on Sunday, October 29.

I see I neglected to comment on the Mimi of this production, Maria Ferrante. Hers was the best voice on stage, perfectly placed for what Puccini gives Mimi to do musically, and with a big production of volume and a deliciously rich timbre she was all that the role required. Physically she is rather unprepossessing, and despite the poverty-stricken circumstances in which Mimi makes her scant living she ought to have gotten more help from Cynthia James, the costume designer, than she did. Her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail didn’t do much for her either. This is carrying realism to unnecessary extremes, it seems to me. By God, if she’s going to sing so beautifully and then go and die on us, at least she ought to be really well dressed — within the limits of verismo style, of course.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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