Toledo Opera gets Puccini's 'La Boheme' just right

Published Friday, February 7, 2020
by Wayne F. Anthony

As snow fell on the streets of Toledo on Wednesday evening, a smaller-than-expected group of area high school students braved the elements to sit completely mesmerized as winter descended on stage of the Valentine Theatre as well. Set in the freezing snows of romantic Paris, the Toledo Opera opened the final dress rehearsal of its all-new production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

In short, this compelling portrait of love and loss among penniless artists in 19th-century Paris unfolds just right.

Evenly balanced, every aspect in a perfect flow of artistic synergy, the opera transports the viewer somewhere beyond this moment in time to a place of eternal virtues, where camaraderie, hope, good will, and above all, love reign.

The sets are beautiful, intimate, colorful, enveloping, drawing the viewer within. From a gritty attic garret with its exposed views of the Paris skyline, to a crowded Left Bank street corner café surrounded by the press of clambering humanity, on to the gray courtyard of a wayside inn held in the icy grip of falling snow, each vignette is a perfectly conjured, evocative postcard.

The lighting is subtle, enabling the nuance of the drama’s emotional tide. The choice to not use any sort of video projection was perfect; anything else would have been one step too far.

The costuming is a colorful array precisely defining each scene’s mood and characters. Though in slightly better condition than one would have thought for a group of rag-tag, penniless artists, it provides subliminal commentary for the opera’s unspoken themes.

Musetta’s second-act gown is a beautiful symbol of the contrast between her dreams and the reality of her compatriots’ lives. The wielding of a simple peasant shawl unfurls the infinite complexities of the world of love.

Stage Director Jeffrey Buchman receives the gold medal, however, for the choices given to the actors which propel the drama: simplicity rules. The actors draw on their personal lives as young opera singers and their common friendship for primal motivation.

The resultant production rings with verisimilitude and truth: touching, real, poignant, honest, and in a word, powerful.

The opening scene is replete with bon homme. The end of Act I sizzles with true love at first sight. Act III swims with Rodolfo’s admission of his own human weakness. The comic relief at the opening of Act IV demands the audience giggle at its silliness.

The only real misstep is in Act II where the stage is simply too full of characters (more than 90), to enable one to follow the action effectively through the swirling milieu. It moves too fast for the eye and ear to clearly sort the action.

Still, the final kicker is the tragic ending which leaves the viewer with slightly less than dry eyes. Yes, this is an opera actually liable to bring one to tears.

As for the singing: Six principals, perfectly matched, musically gifted, each with a voice promising greatness in the days ahead, swarm the stage. There isn’t a vocal chink in the armor anywhere.

Tenor Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo) has a lyric line that melts the heart of winter’s ice with its warmth. Robust, full, and resonant, he is always spot on to Puccini’s intention. His sotto voce possesses a delicacy to melt butter, and the high B flats ring — Oh baby, do they ring!

Soprano Jessic Dold (Mimi) has a beautiful spin that floats effortlessly in its upper reaches. Rarely is a voice possessed of such an even color across its entire range. Her last two notes in Act I are enough to warrant her entire paycheck. The vocally crafted pathos of her final demise is simply beyond description.

Baritone Brian Major (Marcello) is a perfect foil to both Rodolfo and Musetta, his on-again, off-again love. Rich, warm, and full of presence, he brings a painter’s eye to his vocal commentary on their dramatic struggles.

As Musetta, soprano Alicia Russell brings strength of line, energy, and practical life to the role. Her second act temper tantrum toward, and then seduction of, Marcello is lively and marked. The complex lines are handled with verve. It is her debut in this role, and as she becomes more comfortable, her enthusiastic pertness should settle toward a slightly more sultry allure.

Baritone Keith Harris (Schaunard) and bass Peter Morgan (Colline) round the cadre with clearly defined roles, each adding a solid artistic voice to the brilliant musical mix. Particular praise is given to Morgan for his touching parting aria to the jacket he selflessly sells for Mimi’s sake.

The Toledo Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus delivered a well-executed crowd scene in Act II, clean crisp, and underscoring the action with aplomb.

Maestro James Meena led the Toledo Orchestra, keeping a perfect pace for the overall dramatic arc; the flow never flagging or suffering a loss of intensity. The musicians seamlessly melded into the overall operatic fabric.

Clearly a pinnacle effort, this production of La Bohème should go down in the annals of the Toledo Opera as one of the best it’s ever mounted.

It is not to be missed.

Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre, 400 N. Superior St., Toledo. Tickets are available from the Toledo Opera Box Office at 419-255-7464 or toledoopera.org.

A pre-concert lecture open to all ticketholders will be held in the Grand Lobby one hour prior to the performance curtain.

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