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The Greensboro Opera continued its 40-plus years of bringing high quality opera to Greensboro on Friday night with a moving production of La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). The 2.5 hour, four-act opera was entirely engaging, with impressive sets, period costumes, and wonderful leads in all of the roles.
This is a tragic love story: Rodolfo, a poet, and Mimí, a seamstress, live in the same building. Mimí hesitantly comes to his apartment, asking for a light for her candle. What follows is a fast (and poignant) falling-in-love and their subsequent short time together –spoiler alert, Mimí has consumption. Another love affair between one of Rodolfo's roommates, Marcello (a painter) and a coquette, Musetta, provides a foil.
Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis passionately sang the role of the poet. The depth of his love was presented with both fervor and intimacy, his solid tenor voice able to bring nuance to the character. Soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimí was no less engaging. Her beautiful voice soared in her arias while still catching the physical frailty of her character.
Marcello, sung by baritone David Pershall, was as solid as one could ask for. His singing through the range of emotions, from ardor to frustration and disbelief, testified to both his sturdy sounds as well as his vulnerability. Soprano Díana Thompson-Brewer as Musetta stole the show in Act II, when she enters with the older Alcindoro (a state councilor and follower of Mimí) and leaves with Marcello. Her flirtatious singing, with wonderful runs and high notes, was a knock-out.
Rodolfo's other roommates, philosopher Colline (bass) and musician Schaunard (baritone) made for sympathetic companions through the love maze. Donald Hartmann, as the philosopher, not only provided balance to the quartet, but his rich singing of the last act "Old Coat" aria was touching. Sidney Outlaw as Schaunard enters the opera with a pocket full of money, but is destitute (as are the rest of the quartet) at the end of the opera. His hearty voice added important commentary to the proceedings.
Not all is serious drama, though, as several moments with close to slap-stick humor enliven the pace. In one instance, the cold and poor roommates decide to burn pages of Rodolfo's poetry to keep warm, and in another the destitute and partnerless four undertake a parody of dining a great meal and perform a dance.
Bass Robert Wells sang two roles perfectly: Benoit (the landlord who comes to collect the rent and leaves without any money, drunk) and Musetta's paramour, Alcindoro (who ends up paying the entire café bill where the young principals have been dining, as Musetta leaves with Marcello). Secondary characters, all adding distinct voices, include tenor Travis Gilliam singing Parpignol (an itinerant toy vendor), and bass Brian Kilpatrick as the Customs Officer. Markel Rashad Williams was the Sergeant.
A large chorus (expertly prepared by James Bumgardner) with a children's chorus (led by LJ Martin), added spectacle and color, especially in Act II, where it conveyed the rich Parisian street life that takes place behind the lover's shenanigans.
Joshua Horsch led the pared-down orchestra with both energy (occasionally too loud, overpowering the singing on the stage) and tenderness. Stage Director David Holley kept the action flowing, but also allowed for the suspension of time during the tender singing.
Light Designer/Technical Director Jeff Neubauer provided atmospheric lighting and the costumes were designed by Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Production Stage Manager was John Lipe with Hanna Atkinson and Gitana Havner serving as assistants. Make-Up Designer/Wigmaster (they were great) was Trent Pcenicni.
It's hard for modern audiences to believe that the premiere of arguably the most beloved opera by Puccini was not a roaring success when it was first mounted in Italy in 1896 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini (then 28 years old). But it wasn't a failure either, and public reception was only so-so. One of the critics even said that the opera was "foul in subject and fulminant and futile in its music . . . Silly and inconsequential." Puccini's publisher (Giulio Ricordi), however, wrote to the composer "Dear Puccini, if this time you have not succeeded in hitting the nail squarely on the head, I will change my profession and sell salami!" Today, the public and most musicians agree that Puccini did, indeed, hit the nail squarely on the head.
The opera is presented again on Sunday afternoon. Some have said that this is the perfect opera for the beginner, and it is easy to see why. Puccini's music easily moves from rapid-fire dialogue to seemingly spontaneous, gorgeous melodies underpinned by magnificent harmonies. Motifs, representing the characters' emotions, mingle in and out of the score, subtly reminding the audience of the eternal nature of love. This is a performance well worth attending.