Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the most popular operas in the world for a number of reasons, perhaps most importantly its abundance of mellifluous and beautiful Italian late-Romantic melody.
But Puccini also was a man of the theater, and he knew how to craft a compelling theatrical package (after all, La Bohème has been staged regularly and frequently since February 1896). That makes it doable in less-than-optimum circumstances and still be effective, as a semi-staged performance of the opera Saturday night at the Festival of the Arts Boca made clear.
In truth, although the cavernous space of the Mizner Park Amphitheatre required portable mics for the cast, and the tent over the audience creaked and groaned menacingly in the heavy winds, the opera still made its usual strong impact on an audience, and can count as a successful followup to last year’s Magic Flute for semi-staged opera at this 11-year-old festival.
The cast was primarily a young one, with singers mostly in the early stages of their careers, and their youthful voices were a good match for Puccini’s music. There was one ringer, though (and there was no notice of this in a program insert, as there should have been): Baritone Graham Fandrei, a familiar South Florida performer and educator who filled in as Marcello for Robert Gerold, the Indiana University graduate student originally announced for the role. Fandrei has sung this role many times, including for Baz Luhrmann on Broadway.
The Rodolfo in this production, tenor John Kaneklides, is a handsome young man, which was good for the role, and his voice is warm and pleasant at its best. He was having vocal trouble most of the night, and after singing his early entrances with a Broadway-esque kind of bravado, he dialed that back and returned to opera. He managed his vocal difficulties with great skill, marshaling his strength for the higher notes and making them work, even though they were a little less than full force.
Soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper was a very fine Mimì, with a voice that’s rather larger than the ones you usually hear in this role. Her vibrato, pronounced in the early entrances, moderated after a bit and she settled into a powerful performance. Cooper has a big instrument, and she had plenty of stamina to spare by the end; she probably makes a good Verdi heroine. She and Kaneklides made an attractive and believable couple, and you could see that they both had decent acting chops.
Fandrei made an outstanding Marcello, from the first words of the opera to the last. His warm, rich voice sounded strong and commanding, and he was a good actor, too: As he sat there in the second act, trying hard not to look at Musetta, he fidgeted like a man in a dilemma, making the payoff of their reunion later in the act even better. He and Kaneklides gave their Act IV duet, “O Mimì, tu piú non torni,” particular warmth and sweetness. The Festival was indeed fortunate Fandrei was available for this performance, and he deserves great credit for stepping in.
The soprano Emily Dyer sang Musetta, and sang it well, despite a high B at the end of “Quando me’n vo’” that cracked somewhat after she’d hit it and held it a while. That quibble aside, she was a very fine Musetta, bossy and free-spirited, with an agile, strong voice that had a nice light color. She and Fandrei also were persuasive as an actual couple, which was all to the good.
As Colline, bass Sean Cooper offered a lovely, deep voice that served as a fine anchor in quartet work. It was much softer by the time of his “Vecchia zimarra” in Act IV, which made the tiny aria more tender, if less gravely formal. Baritone Reuben Walker was a decent Schaunard, with a good presentation in Act I of the parrot’s demise that funded the Bohemians’s temporary flushness. Bass-baritone Christopher Seefeldt as Benoit and Alcindoro sang well and acted ably, though he’s considerably younger than the singers usually engaged for this role, and his voice type, a pleasant baritone, is not the comic basso that helps make the roles funnier and more believeable.
The Master Chorale of South Florida was joined by a children’s chorus and instrumentalists from the Dreyfoos School of the Arts for Act II, and was also present for the opening of Act III. One of the difficulties with having no set and doing this in a semi-staged way is that newcomers to the opera would need to read the program (which spelled the composer’s name as “Giacoma” Puccini) to understand the settings of each act. The festival should have put some information in the supertitles to help the audience get oriented; i.e., Act II: The Café Momus, Paris, on Christmas Eve, and then perhaps a few sentences about what you would see in an opera house.
Without that, Act II must have been terribly confusing to people who didn’t know the opera, and the same goes for Act III, which takes place at a tollhouse gate in Paris, a reality in the 1840s but long gone since then. It wouldn’t have taken much to explain these things via supertitles, so we would know why there was so much talk of eggs and chickens, and people telling two mysterious men standing on stage to open up. If you don’t know the opera, I don’t know how you made sense of it.
The Chorale sang decently, and the boy who wanted both the trumpet and the horse from Parpignol sang his line well. The children’s chorus that mobbed a muscular-voiced Parpignol came in all over the place, which is a hazard of being in front of the orchestra instead of on stage watching a maestro’s baton.
The action was economically staged by Antonia Kitsopoulos, and it worked well considering that she was working with minimal props on a sliver of a stage in front of a large orchestra. Not an easy task, but she kept her performers and the action moving.
The orchestra, under Constantine Kitsopoulos, was an expanded Symphonia Boca Raton, which draws its members chiefly from the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra. This was a score familiar to most of the players on stage, and they performed it beautifully. Kitsopoulos kept a steady, swift hand on the proceedings, and the fact that this opera worked so well Saturday night is in many ways thanks to this expert orchestra and his fine conducting.