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May 18, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 20
 
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Why another 'Boheme' at Seattle Opera?
Why another 'Boheme' at Seattle Opera?
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

"I'm not going," said one of my opera friends. He'd seen too many 'Bohémes.' I'm glad I'm not quite THAT saturated with seeing performances of Puccini's La Bohéme, for Seattle Opera's latest presentation of this super-popular opera had much to recommend it. Called by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, "the perfect opera," this masterpiece has indeed been over-exposed, on telecasts, movies, video, and of course CD's. It's a sure-sell for any opera company, yet Tuesday night's house was only ¾ full, perhaps because it is being presented 12 times, through May 20th.

But each performance is different. What I most enjoyed about the current run in Seattle was the conducting of Vjekoslav Sutej. He reveled in Puccini's brilliant orchestral writing. Too much so on opening night, when he often allowed the orchestra to drown out the singers, especially in the first act. The plus side of this serious fault was that I had never before been made to notice quite how rich the orchestral colors were. And the sheer vitality of the score was given full force.

The production was mostly very traditional in the best sense. Sets (Pier Luigi Pizzi) were more than adequate and not cheap-looking. Direction (Jose Maria Condemi) was excellent, especially in the extremely complex Café Momus scene, in which the stage is mostly full with the principals, adult and children's choruses, and a multi-level set. In fact, I have never seen this scene better done.

Despite some excellent singers on opening night, I actually preferred the second cast, as seen the following Tuesday evening. That cast was not so polished as the one on opening night, but as a whole they threw themselves into the drama with more feeling. They moved me more.

Our Mimi's were Nuccia Focile and Gun-Brit Barkmin, and they could hardly have been more different. Both were physically attractive and excellent actresses. Focile has a smallish voice that was pretty without being rich or especially warm. She used what she had with consummate artistry and a technique that never pushed the voice beyond its natural limits. She won the audience with sweetness and very feminine charm. Barkmin, making her American debut, had a much larger, warmer, richer voice that was beautiful throughout her range. She won me by the sheer sensual beauty of her voice and her fine musicianship. She was no less an actress than Focile.

The tenors singing Rudolfo were also very different from each other. Both had fresh, sweet voices of very appealing qualities. Opening night's Rosario La Spina, a Pavarotti-proportioned singer, was appealing in his fine phrasing and secure tops, with a ringing high C. (He took the optional C at the end of Act One.) However, I found his upper range effortful, making me doubt his longevity as a singer. Both tenors were adequate as actors. Scott Piper showed his inexperience as he approached his high C standing on one foot; lacking good support, the C went everywhere as it cracked and warbled. His tops generally lacked focus and need some work. Otherwise, he was appealing and more easily heard than La Spina.

Karen Driscoll and Margarita De Arellano were both excellent as Musetta. Her Second Act waltz has given many a soprano difficulty, but these singers handled it with ease and great humor. Their baritone boyfriends, Philip Cutlip and Michael Todd Simpson, were attractive both vocally and physically. Of the two basses singing Colline, I much preferred the richer-voiced Ashraf Sewailam on Tuesday night to the rather dry-sounding Deyan Vatchkov on opening night. The two Schaunards were also fine, as were all the smaller parts. Of special merit was the work of both the adult and children's choruses. In their very complex scene, coordination between stage and pit was spot-on at the same time as everyone looked completely at ease as they acted their bits. That's quite an accomplishment!

I took an opera novice on Tuesday. With its sweet melodies and story about young love presented in a concise opera that is shorter than most, it's not a bad first opera for anyone.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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