Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Tender emotions


Erika Grimaldi as Mim" in San Francisco Opera's production of Puccini's "La Boheme."Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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The third and final production in San Francisco Opera's summer season opened last Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House with Giacomo Puccini's beloved tearjerker "La Boheme." A historical cornerstone of the Company's repertory, the enduring verismo tale of young friends living and loving in 19th-century Paris also fits with the city's Summer of Love celebrations.

The co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Canadian Opera Company is another quick return item in the SFO summer lineup. It has been a season of highs and lows, but still worthy of interest. All three operas are high on everyone's list of favorites.

Director John Caird's and designer David Farley's charming and intimate take on Puccini's perfect little heartbreaker was last seen in 2014. Memories of the cast(s) are still recent enough for comparison, but it's unfair to expect duplication of previous successes. A revival works best when the newbies are allowed to breathe their own life into the roles. "La Boheme" is an ensemble work with two lovers at its heart, and I doubt many listeners will be disappointed at the current incarnation.

The melodic score is beautifully served by conductor Carlo Montanaro. He made his SFO debut with "Carmen" in 2016, and he has bonded with the orchestra and mastered the quirky acoustics of the pit in short order.

The passion and tender emotion of the music project character as well as backdrop for the singers, and it is thrilling to hear the strings adding such robust flavor. The costumed onstage band in the Latin Quarter scene is a coup de theatre that lifts the spirit of the show. It increases our admiration for Caird's unfussy and thoughtful details.

Scott Conner as Colline, Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Rodolfo, and Audun Iversen as Marcello in San Francisco Opera's production of Puccini's "La Boheme." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The sets are a collection of canvases (presumably by the artist Marcello) that cleverly frame the action, moving seamlessly on two turntables. They add a cinematic flow that is both functional and attractive. Even if we're humming the tunes on the way into the theatre and welcoming the revival with vivid recollections, it is a pleasing reunion. For first-timers it should be a surefire hit. The performers supply an outcome that packs a little less punch this time, but we are still fighting back a predictable tear or two by the ending. Feelings and involvement are still satisfied by the wonderfully theatrical composer.

Warming up and growing in commitment before a convincing final act, the singers guarantee cumulative emotional impact. It isn't as devastating as "La Boheme" can often be, but requiring one hanky instead of three still provides a certain catharsis. Caird and Farley assure us "We'll always have Paris."

Tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz in the role of the ardent poet Rodolfo can (as he must) dominate the stage with a strong and beautiful voice. His acting became more believable as the performance continued. Once he and his love-at-first-sight partner got over the hurdles of Act I, he seemed less self-conscious, winning our unqualified support by the final curtain.

Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi did not share as successfully in the journey. Her Mimi is never completely convincing despite her well-sung portrayal. Grimaldi's voice is pure and strong and always pleasing. She simply doesn't get under our skin. Subtlety is a virtue unnecessary in verismo.

As the painter Marcello, Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen was well-matched with the feisty Ellie Dehn as Musetta. Iversen made his character's frustration sympathetic, and he joined with his buddies for some realistically funny horseplay in Act IV. Dehn was a more elegant coquette than tradition has accustomed us to expect. Her accurate singing managed to fill in the blanks.

Bass Scott Connor as the philosopher Colline was big-hearted and touching in his famous Coat Aria ("Vecchia zimmara senti").

American bass-baritone Brad Walker is a current Adler Fellow, and he was another age-appropriate and attractive cast member as the musician Schaunard. Company veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis made his mark as the landlord Alcindoro.

The adorable moppet choristers of Act II got their own ovation, and director Ian Robertson's reliable grownups added additional pulse to the show.

It should be interesting to hear what former Adler Fellow soprano Julie Adams brings to the role of Mimi for two performances later in the month. "La Boheme" plays through Sunday, July 2.


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