The pundits tells us life will be different after the pandemic. By switching to outdoor performances Palm Beach Opera may have stumbled on a panoply of new ideas for its future.
Using the iThink Financial Amphitheatre at the South Florida Fairgrounds, with singers’s voices slightly enhanced, made for a reproductive quality not usually heard in smaller houses. Also, having each artists’ aria featured on a central huge screen is like watching the show from the front row. Facial expressions and emotions are close up, and there is no need for opera glasses. Better yet, the translation from foreign language into English runs under their images in easy-to-read big letters.
And having one 40-minute intermission is a brilliant idea. The rush and crush for restrooms: gone. The quality and variety of foods on offer is provided at reasonable prices. Separate bars serve wines, soft drinks, liquor and beer. Dozens of tables provide seating where people meet, talk about the opera and compare notes. It’s a wonderful new way to enjoy opera. General Director David Walker has added a new chapter to the young history of opera. And the young may come in droves.
On Wednesday night, Palm Beach Opera presented Puccini’s La Bohème, one of the most popular, if not the most popular, operas in the canon. It opens with four struggling artists in their attic rental in the Paris of about 1840. The first 20 minutes is magnificent, devoted to the back and forth of young-man repartee, tuneful, singing conversation that is masterfully written by Puccini.
At the iThink, their strong voices filled the air and we were reminded most have already sung at the pinnacle of American opera: New York’s Metropolitan.
Tenor Michael Fabiano sustained amazing volume throughout as Rodolfo. His voice has the squillio of a DiStefano and the tenderness of a Gigli in quiet passages. He was truly excellent. Baritone Quinn Kelsey’s strong supple intonation was unique as Marcello, so pleasing on the ear. I could have listened to him all night.
Ryan Speedo Green’s beautiful baritone gave life to the philosopher student, Colline. Another great voice was a newcomer, the young South Korean Heeseung Chae singing Schaunard. His delightful personality leapt into our hearts with a delicately shaded performance. Their landlord, Benoit, denied his rent, settled for a drink. The distinguished and sonorous voice of bass-baritone Jake Gardner pulled off the miracle of also singing Alcindoro, with convincing aplomb in Act II as Musetta’s put-upon sugar daddy.
At one point in Act II’s Café Momus scene, all seven leading artists sing, each 10 feet from the other. Distancing, they call it. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Apart, yes, but the magic of the cameramen brought them together on the big screen: a stroke of genius.
Latonia Moore’s lovely soprano continually soared into heavenly, sweetly rounded sounds as Mimí. Happily, Moore did not overdo the coughing, signaling that she’s dying of consumption (Anna Moffo had the Met audience coughing along with her when she sang this role). The camera close-ups of Moore revealed a sensitive artist giving her very best. Here I had a small quibble. Director James Robinson has Moore dying, legs akimbo, seated on a chair in reverse, her body leaning on the chair back. It was an unceremonial death scene.
The world-renowned mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard debuted the role of Musetta here. It was a fine performance, but on a couple of occasions I sensed she was pushing in the upper register. It did not have the lilt and carefree abandon I was expecting. Along with tenors Matthew Polenzani and Fabiano she will sing in The Met’s All Star At Home Gala on April 25, free for everyone to watch.
In fairness, I must report that at the height of Leonard’s arias and those of Moore, airplane engines overhead competed with both ladies.The flight pattern to PBIA will be an issue for some.
Mention of the excellent chorus work at the beginning of Act II must not be overlooked. They were simply marvelous to hear and supported the action throughout in ghostly fashion, hardly ever seen, “distanced” at the rear, but always right there on cue.
So, too, was the orchestra in fine fettle. Its musicians played the rapturous music of Puccini as if their very lives depended on it being heard to perfection. Palm Beach Opera Orchestra has always been in the top rank. At one time under Bruno Aprea, they gave symphonic performances in the Eissey Campus Theatre; they are that good.
Mention has been made earlier of the excellent camera work. I honestly believe the future of opera is with the brilliant techies who man the cameras. Imagine seeing the front of maestro David Stern as he conducts, instead of trying to find him in the pit with his back to the audience. And the closeups of the singers bring their very being into life with emotions and expressions we need to see as well as hear. Cameras intensify the operatic experience.
Kudos to everyone involved in this memorable Bohème.
Two more operas go up this week. Mozart’s Magic Flute tonight, and Leoncavallo’s dramatic Pagliacci on Saturday. Both start at 7:30.p.m. For tickets call 561-833-7888 or go online to firstname.lastname@example.org.