Presenting one of the world’s most beloved operas is usually great news for the box office, but must, necessarily, be measured against all previous performances.
Having been spoiled with the likes of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1982 Metropolitan opera production and first coming across this operatic masterpiece under the tutelage of Leonard Treach during my conducting days at Carnegie Mellon University, it would be difficult for any performance to match, much less surpass those experiences.
Both Treach and Zeffirelli are masters of gesture-wedded-to-the-music. In their hands, the simple lifting of a threadbare shawl was morphed from functional business to dramatic metaphor. Unfortunately, stage director Michael Cavanagh and conductor Cal Stuart Kellogg, couldn’t find the magic that lurks alluring on every page.
From the very first measures it was abundantly clear that razor-sharp ensemble within the orchestra and between the stage and the pit would be in short supply. It took until Act III for the principals to use their considerable skills to keep themselves together, providing some of the finest music-making of the evening. The musicians listened attentively and followed suit. Maddeningly, the frequent emotional climaxes in the carefully planned balance with both the children’s and adult choruses left their contributions as messy as some of the stage litter between scenes.
Subtle character development doesn’t seem to be Cavanagh’s strength. The doomed heroine’s first appearance gave the impression she might not make it to Christmas Eve dinner much less a few more months of consumptive decline. Oh for the slight cough and tentative steps that Teresa Stratus brought to the role in 1982, making it singularly her own. The amorous entwinement of Musetta and Marcello verged on the bawdy rather than hot-blooded passion even as the men’s Quadrille couldn’t find its slightly “fem” self, more buffoonery than La Cage aux Folles.
Thank goodness for the voices.
Roger Honeywell was a splendid Rodolfo. His frequent excursions to the top register were always a pleasure. Once he masters the rare art of keeping that overt intensity in the quieter moments, he’ll be in constant demand. As Mimi, Marian Khalil utilized her considerable artistry, impressive dynamic range and excellent projection to captivate the audience. Some might quibble with her wide, quick-paced vibrato, but just as many would extol its virtues.
Painter Marcello had a noble advocate thanks to Peter Barrett’s grasp of the role and impressive vocal interaction with his colleagues. Baritone Alexander Hajek was a sympathetic Schaunard and the Bohemian quartet was nicely anchored by Jon-Paul Décosse who rendered the famous “Coat” aria with passion and surety.
Virginia Hatfield was a delectable Musetta, equally adept at unbridled coquettishness and inner sensitivity.
More’s the pity that the highly skilled leads couldn’t have been provided with a subtle arsenal of looks, touch and movement, which, as we’ve seen, could magically reinforce the various resolutions of the embattled lovers—not just into our hearts, but into our souls. JWR