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That the Greensboro Opera Company has its finger on the pulse of opera programming is demonstrated by a November 1 dateline in Musical America 's online "Industry News." The headline proclaims: " La Bohème Climbs to the Top of the Charts." This notice appeared on the day that the GOC's production enjoyed the first of two performances, the second of which was on the afternoon of November 3.
Because the sets might have been from storage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, we felt as if we were caught in a time capsule as we watched the timeless story of La Bohème unfold at War Memorial Auditorium, part of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, beginning at 8:00 p.m. on opening night. The classic performance of the Giacomo Puccini opera was well-pleasing to the black tie audience.
La Bohème was first presented in Italy near the turn of the 20th century, and many important divas have played the role of Mimi. Toward the end of the century, Linda Ronstadt gave it a more popular interpretation, while currently the story is experienced in the Broadway show Rent. No end of hapless star-crossed lovers in the ranks of poets, artists and seamstresses can identify with the bittersweet plot.
Opening in a frigid garret, an all-male section of the cast set the stage of deprivation as they used the poet Rodolfo's manuscript for fuel in the wood stove. At once, the audience settled into comfortable appreciation of a well-conceived, well-directed show. This is the only advertised presentation of the Greensboro Opera Company. Can it be the entire season? Our only complaint is the venue: the sight lines are less than optimal from Row Q. A Greensboro Opera House would be a nice goal.
Mimi entered and, after Rodolfo introduced himself, sang her celebrated "I Am Mimi." Soprano Carol Ann Manzi, the Mimi, although not immediately strong, continued through the evening to recreate the role ever more convincingly. She will develop the role further with engagements later this year as Mimi with Eugene Opera and, next year, for Opera Carolina. Earlier in her career, she sang Liu in Turandot in Charlotte.
Rodolfo, the stronger of the vocal duo, presented a resonant tenor that will probably make the name of Marc Heller a household word, given proper publicity and opportunity. He has already sung with the New York City Opera as Sam in The Ballad of Baby Doe and as Giove in Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria . His brilliant tenor voice soared in the familiar recurrent melodies, enhancing this Greensboro Bohème .
Patryk Wroblewski, baritone, succeeded in portraying a classic Marcello. He was extremely well cast yet not outstanding - or perhaps he was indeed so, since his performance stole nothing from the principal characters while being completely supportive in his secondary love-interest role with Musetta. Jane Ohmes, soprano, who re-created Musetta, did not give a memorable musical performance. Perhaps because her costume in Act II was a subdued forest green instead of bright red (serving as a focal point to follow, as in previous productions elsewhere), the total effect was a bit disappointing. Her acting was however well-crafted.
As Schaunard, baritone Keith Spencer turned our heads during the farewell song in the final scene. Upon reading the biographical notes, we discovered that he had dedicated this performance to the memory of his father. Presumably the spiritual communication came through as he shared his inspiration for the song with the audience. Colline was played by Branch Fields, bass. Tenor Jeff Maggs undertook dual roles: he was Benoit, the landlord, and Alcindoro. Scott Whitesell, of considerable Greensboro acclaim, completed the list of supporting cast members admirably in the role of Parpignol.
To give credit where credit is truly due in working with this emerging talent, I shall quote directly from the biography of Bodo Igesz, artistic director and stage director. Igesz "was born in Amsterdam, where he studied drama, musicology and stage direction and began his career as the assistant to Franco Zeffirelli at the Holland Festival. He has since directed opera for many of the world's great companies including the Salzburg Festival, Edinburgh Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera.
"Mr. Igesz is well-known for his productions throughout the United States, in Europe, and in South America, including Teatro de la Opera [Puerto Rico], Teatro Teresa Carreno in Caracas, Austin Lyric Opera, New Jersey State Opera, Opera Hamilton, Mississippi Opera, the Music Academy of the West, Orlando Opera, New Orleans Opera, Utah Opera, and Opera San José. He has taught operatic acting at the American Institute of Music Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria, the past four summers. Last year, Mr. Igesz directed La Traviata in Poland and The Rape of Lucretia in Reykjavik, Iceland." We look forward to future Igesz productions.
The evening was further enhanced by subtle artistic work in the pit by conductor Valery Alexander Ryvkin. Bohème is one of a long list of operas he has conducted for the Greensboro Opera Company. Since immigrating to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, he has made a name for himself along the mid-Pacific Coast, as Artistic Director of Opera Santa Barbara. I should mention that, at this performance and the one I remember in Santa Barbara several years ago, the presence of translations was most helpful, especially in the choral scenes, with their nice-sounding music and unclear diction. In Greensboro, the projected words were a little far removed for convenience yet far enough away from the main stage that they could be ignored by purists who prefer to do their own translation.