Sunday, June 11, 2017

San Francisco Opera’s Puccini is a Perceptive Character Study

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of eight performances of the third and final opera in the current Summer Season, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. This was a revival of a production shared with the Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, first performed in Houston in October 2012. The production was first performed here in November and December of 2014, a major effort involving thirteen performances and two casts. Staging was directed by John Caird, who was making his SFO debut at that time, with set designs by David Farley and lighting by Michael James Clark.

When this production was first presented, Caird made a strong positive impression with his ability to develop the nuanced personalities of the major characters in the scenario. During the second act, set in the Latin Quarter of Paris, it quickly became clear that he also knew how to work with massive crowds consisting of several diverse groups. In addition, it was clear that he knew how to keep things moving across the entire dramatic trajectory of the libretto, fully appreciating that any lapse in the progress of the narrative could easily lead to a lapse in audience attention.

This time around Caird was working with a single cast (with one exception for two performances); and all of the virtues of the debut production were just as evident. Perhaps they were even more sharply honed, since Caird could focus on working with a single set of performers. Furthermore, the dramatic impact of each of the opera’s characters was consistently reinforced by the musical skills of the vocalist performing the role. Caird’s lighting struck once again, just as dazzling as it had been at the SFO premiere.

It is thus important to call out the talents on the stage that brought so much satisfaction to the revival of Caird’s conception of this opera. The core of the narrative involves the emergence of the relationship between the poet Rodolfo (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz) and his neighbor Mimi (soprano Erika Grimaldi). (This latter involved the one exception to the single cast. Soprano Julie Adams will sing this role on June 20 and 25.) That relationship rises and falls over the course of the libretto, culminating with Mimi, who is sickly when we first encounter her, dying of her illness at the conclusion.

The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica serves up an abundance of opportunities for show-stopping arias and duets (and it is hard to find a “showcase” performance in which at least one of these opportunities is missing). Both Chacón-Cruz and Grimaldi delivered consistently in presenting these moments, always triggering enthusiastic audience response; but it was clear that both of them were true to Caird’s vision to get on with the progress of the plot. They were also adeptly complemented by the second relationship in the narrative between Rodolfo’s painter roommate Marcello (baritone Audun Iversen) and the courtesan Musetta (soprano Ellie Dehn). The narrative does not explore these characters as deeply. Nevertheless, they both have significant vocal moments (particularly Musetta); and both Iversen and Dehn consistently shaped their vocal work around the context of the plot. Particularly engaging was the staging of the third act, over the course of which these four characters engage with each other in different combinations as they cope with their respective relationships:

Musetta (Ellie Dehn), Marcello (Audun Iversen), Mimi (Erika Grimaldi), and Rodolfo (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

The result last night was a performance that etched itself firmly into memory, regardless of how many past experiences any viewer had with this opera or with Caird’s approach to staging it.

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