Rodolfo (Derrek Stark) helps Mimi light her candle.Below: Musetta (Jessica Jones) returns to her old flame, Marcello (Daniel Scofield).
Striped awnings and lamps drop from the fly loft to sketch the Paris street outside Cafe Momus in Kevin Depinet’s scenery design for La Bohème, staged by Opera San Antonio.
Dress rehearsal photos by Karen Almond.
May 19, 2018
Though it had its premiere in 1896 and the story’s setting is 19th-century Paris, Puccini’s La Bohème remains strikingly apposite today in any big city with a concentration of struggling young artists and intellectuals and a vast gap between rich and the poor. That thematic relevance, together with a nonstop gusher of gorgeous music and a tear-jerker ending, have assured La Bohème a consistent place among the four or five operas most often produced, both worldwide and in North America.
Yes, it’s overexposed, but Opera San Antonio’s production worked so well on so many levels on opening night, May 17, that this warhorse seemed fresh and new. The show repeats May 19 at 7:30 pm in the Tobin Center.
This production originated at the highly regarded Glimmerglass Festival, near Cooperstown, New York, in 2016. Stage director E. Loren Meeker, who created that production in collaboration with set designer Kevin Depinet and costume designer Erik Teague, was also in charge in San Antonio. The cast of (mostly) young American singing actors was abetted by the San Antonio Symphony under its music director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
It’s an uncommonly lithe staging. This is that rare opera production in which every action of every character is purposeful and natural – not a false note the entire evening. As much as the words and the music, Ms. Meeker’s abundant, intelligently placed details show us who the characters are.
The physical design makes its points without drawing attention away from the human story. Mr. Depinet’s sets sketch the locations with a few deft strokes rather than a weighty and busy attempt at realism. Giant roof beams and a few pieces of furniture denote the garret apartment shared by the poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello. The Parisian street of the Cafe Momus scene – in other productions, often requiring several minutes for a complicated (and noisy) set change – is achieved in a silent trice simply by lowering a number of striped awnings and lamps from the fly loft. Mr. Teague’s costumes evoke Toulouse-Lautrec, thus suggesting a period a few decades later than the 1830s, specified in the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The costumes are aptly flashy and colorful for Marcello’s lover, Musetta, and for the horde of dancers, soldiers and street people in the comedic Cafe Momus scene, but color recedes in the other scenes, whose import is more serious.
The cast maintained a high level of excellence in both singing and acting. The most fastidious opera fanatics might have wished for more vocal refinement in this passage or a cleaner high B-flat in that aria, but on the whole the solo singing was beautiful and stylish, and the ensembles were spirited. The singers also had strong acting chops, and they moved nimbly.
Derrek Stark’s youthful, limpid, ardent tenor instrument was ideal for the role of Rodolfo. The warmth and slightly dark vocal coloration of Amanda Kingston’s soprano served well the doomed Mimi. Soprano Jessica Jones was a splendid Musetta, bright of voice and theatrically convincing in both comedic and sympathetic modes. Baritone Daniel Scofield was a stirring Marcello. Bass-baritone Jake Gardner showed mastery of the comedic art in the roles of the landlord Benoit and the moneyed roué Alcindoro. Baritone Andrew McLaughlin was a pleasurable Schaunard, the musician. Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins was a commanding Colline, the philosopher. Colline’s “coat aria” in the final act is a showstopper in nearly every production of La Bohème, and it was here, but Mr. Hopkins brought something special to the piece – not just a generic pathos, but a clear sense of a specific character, one who has a life beyond the opera.
But the greatest musical splendors in this production were those rising from the orchestra pit. Mr. Lang-Lessing’s theatrical instincts were in top form. His pacing and timing propelled the action from first to last, and some passages – most notably, Mimi’s Act I entrance – were ravishingly beautiful. The H-E-B Performance Hall’s superb acoustics allowed innumerable details of orchestration to speak clearly and make their dramatic points. The orchestra played at its peak of polish and precision.
Old warhorse finds fountain of youth
Colline (Justin Hopkins, left) and Schaunard (Andrew McLaughlin) engage in mock swordplay, encouraged by Marcello and Rodolfo.
Below: The landlord Benoit (Jake Gardner, second from right) submits to flattery by Colline, Schaunard, Rodolfo and Marcello.