Saturday night marked the end of the classical music portion of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest. As has become the custom, this last concert was a semi-staged version of an opera. This year it was Puccini's lush, melodic La Boheme.
For those of you who haven't seen Rent, the updated Broadway version of this story, the staging of this performance may well have been similar to that of the musical. The stage was sparsely set, in keeping with a partial-staging idea, and the performers wore tattered jeans to let you know they were poor, starving artists. (Aside: then why do torn, pre-worn-looking jeans cost so much more than those that look brand new???)
Unlike a usual opera venue, the orchestra for this performance was crowded toward the back of the stage instead of being in a pit, mostly unseen. The singers played out their story in front of the orchestra. Whether it was because of this set-up, or because the hall isn't really right for unmiked singers, or whether it's because these singers didn't have voices up to the task of singing in this size hall, there were many times when the orchestra covered completely the singing.
Maureen O'Flynn as the consumptive Mimi did well enough most of the time , her voice soaring in the higher, louder passages. Sarah Hagstrom as the coquette Musetta was mostly shrill. Perhaps it's hard to prance around in stiletto heels and sing smoothly. Raymond Ayers played Marcello, the put-upon, on-again, off-again lover of Musetta. Mr. Ayers has performed before with the MO, including last year's performances of Tosca and Carmen, as well as with the Minnesota Opera as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. While his voice is serviceable enough, his acting ranges all the way from agitated to stolid. Andrew Gangestad as Colline showed much more emotion in his bittersweet aria to his beloved coat as he prepared to pawn it for the sake of obtaining money to pay for Mimi's doctor.
Clearly, the star of the evening was James Valenti as Rodolfo, the poet who falls in love with Mimi. After one false high note in Act 1, his voice became stronger in each succeeding act. He has performed this role many times and it shows. However, his familiarity does not lead to boredom. He was animated and passionate. He was the sensitive poet, yet had the confidential swagger of a young man in love with a beautiful girl. Only the story itself let him down.
While Puccini could probably make a gorgeous opera out of the Paris phonebook, he certainly had his work cut out for him with this ridiculous, repulsive story. While classified as verismo opera (Italian for realism), there is much of the Romantic about this. Mimi and Rodolfo meet in his cold, dark garret when she asks for a light for her candle that has gone out. They see each other for only moments before his too goes out and they spend the last part of the act in the dark singing of their endless, undying love. The truth is, that no one in the story has the least idea of what real love is about.
As soon as it is clear to Rodolfo that Mimi is gravely, probably terminally, ill, he makes up an excuse to leave her, claiming that she is a flirt and wishes to be unfaithful to him. He cannot deal with her illness and fools himself into thinking that his poverty will drag her down, even though she has no prospects of a better life without him.
As for Marcello and Musetta, they are no better role models. They fight and make up, they yell and scream, they taunt and torture one another. One begins to think that it would be better if they all contracted consumption.
Puccini triumphs over all. His lyrical melodies touch our hearts, even when the characters sing about shoes and sore feet, as in the reprise of Musetta's beautiful aria "Quando me'n vo' soletta" (known as Musetta's Waltz). In the opening of Act 3, one can almost see the falling snow that is evoked by the flutes and harp. Lines and phrases that would become Tosca and Turandot are heard throughout and one can almost forgive the silliness of the plot for the beauty of the music.
As usual, the Minnesota Orchestra was superb. Conducted by Andrew Litton, they not only served as accompaniment for the singers, but were able to make the instrumental moments important in the structure of the play. The Minnesota Chorale, under the direction of Kathy Saltzman Romey, is beginning to have quite a talent for being an acting opera chorus in addition to fine concert work.