This afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for another performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in the current Summer Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). I had multiple reasons for doing so. This was the performance that is on the subscription series for which my wife and I have tickets. It also turned out to be the second of the (only) two performances that soprano Julie Adams gave in the role of Mimì. Finally, by way of a confession, I realized that, when I covered opening night, I was so wrapped up in the intricate qualities of the staging that I neglected to say anything about what was happening in the orchestra pit. As I have previously observed, my subscription tickets afford an excellent view of just about all of the musicians except for those in what was, this afternoon, the second violin section; and it is hard to resist dwelling on how the conductor (Carlo Montanaro) manages the complex relationship between what those musicians are doing and what happens up on stage.
This is a particularly challenging matter where La Bohème is concerned. This is very much an opera that prioritizes the vocalists above all other matters. Indeed, it almost (but not quite) feels like a revival of the Baroque tradition of one set piece after another through which each character reveals his/her dispositions while whatever flow of narrative there may be comes to a screaming halt. Of course the expressiveness of the nineteenth century marked a radical shift from that of the seventeenth, but all that means is that each era had its own characteristic resources for creating and executing virtuoso display.
Thus, what was important about Montanaro was how he accepted this prioritization and managed his instrumental resources to support it. Much of his effort had to do with pacing, allowing the singers liberty to prolong certain moments. (Puccini was very helpful in this regard. You know where those moments are because instrumental activity is minimal, if it is there at all.) Such an approach enhanced a sense of spontaneity that originated in the vocal work but was then reflected by the orchestral support. In addition I found myself more aware of sensitive control of the dynamic contours. This seemed to be one of the primary techniques which which Adams made this role her own, and it would not surprise me to learn that Montanaro himself had been involved in some of the coaching to prepare her for her performances.
Beyond her musicianship, however, Adams had at least a minor problem with her own healthy disposition. During the first act she never quite got into character in a manner that suggested that Mimì was doomed from her very first encounter with Rodolfo (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz). Mind you, Adams was not the only weak link in this chain. From a narratological point of view, the major weakness in the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is that there is too much of a tendency to treat poverty and the hunger associated with it as a jolly affair. The one compensation came with Adams’ change in makeup prior to the final act. She assumed a death-warmed-over look that made it clear that the trajectory for the remainder of the opera would be an unrelenting downward spiral. Here again, however, relationship with the music was critical, since, by virtue of Montanaro’s guidance through the score, Adams never left the viewer feel as if she were wallowing in his misfortune.
This summer’s performances were the first revival of a production first presented here in November and December of 2014. Since La Bohème is the most frequently performed opera in the SFO repertoire, it is likely to return to the War Memorial Opera House sooner rather than later. This production is enough of a “keeper” that management may do well to resist the temptation of committing significant resources to bringing on a new staging.