Solomon: ‘La Boheme’ Rather Good Despite Flaws

Center Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì). From left Mario Chang (Rodolfo), Soloman Howard (Colline), Will Liverman (Schaunard), and Zachary Nelson (Marcello). Photo by  Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera
For the Los Alamos Daily Post

This year’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme at the Santa Fe Opera is largely rather good, with two fundamental problems.

Mimi (Vanessa Vasquez) is glorious, delicious to listen to and obviously a rising star in the American lyric soprano constellation. Gabriella Reyes’ Musetta is also wonderful vocally, epitomizing the vain, big-hearted character who knows well how to survive on her beauty. And I loved her red-sequined pantsuit, but the skates have GOT to go! They trivialized Musetta, and made the scene into a farce, à la Fanny Brice, or Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles.

I also like that both our heroines and Rudolfo (Mario Chang) are of Latin descent, and two of the bohemian mens’ quartet, Colline (Solomon Howard) and Schaunard (Will Liverman) are African American. That makes Zachary Nelson’s Marcello the token “white” on stage, which you gotta love!

While the Four Friends interacted well, both vocally and dramatically, Rodolfo was the weak link, with his voice rarely if ever completely escaping his mouth, resulting in small tone, thin on top, and too often simply inaudible. This first fundamental problem is absolutely the fault of conductor Jader Bignamini, whose job it is to BALANCE the orchestra to the singers, no matter how soft. The orchestra is TOO LOUD if we cannot hear the singers they hired and we came to hear. It is NOT the Santa Fe Orchestra, but the Santa Fe Opera; and every one of those magnificent professional musicians in the pit are capable of playing ppp if so directed.

The second fundamental problem lies at the feet of director Mary Birnbaum. Frequently her staging had characters separate when they should have been together, both by intent and theme of the overall play, and by what they were saying in that moment. Even if you can’t understand the Italian, authenticity, or its lack, comes through when the lovers should be facing each other and holding hands, but the staging makes it impossible.

The worst transgression of this kind was the ending, (also a moment when Rodolfo’s heart-rending final cry is completely covered by the orchestra), which left every character an island in a fractured garret, not a single companion offering or receiving comfort in the face of tragedy. This is antithetical both to the nature of the story, based entirely on the relationships and camaraderie between the bohemians; and to real life, when we come together in shared grief.

But I must end on a high note.  The ingenious, imaginative sets of Grace Laubacher, evoking first the narrow row-house rooftops of Paris’ Latin Quarter; then splitting and revolving to transform facades into shimmering city walls and garret into Café Momus. Brava to her, and to Camillia Koo’s lovely costumes, bathing Act II in goldenrod, pink, peach, and moss botanicals; and successfully suggesting period, with a zing.

‘La Boheme’ will be performed at 8 p.m. Aug. 17, 20 and 24.

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