Tuesday, February 9, 2010

La Boheme at San Diego Opera

Our opera season is now in full swing after a good run of Puccini's La Boheme at the Civic Theater last 1 1/2 weeks. Yours nosiness dropped in there for the premiere performance on January 30th and was rather surprised that the show wasn't sold out (the theater was pretty packed, though). I had a subscription ticket for a balcony seat but was generously upgraded to (oh, no!) the orchestra level before the curtain. Much better view, to be sure... but acoustically iffy.

To be honest, I was pretty disappointed at not getting to experience Anja Harteros live since she came down with something nasty a few weeks before opening night and had to cancel the whole run for an unspecified medical procedure. All the same, I'm a Kasarova fan (which means I am quite mindful of how some very bright stars got their big break substituting for a more famous colleague in live performances) and so was quite looking forward to experiencing Ellie Dehn's Mimi instead.

Really, the stereotype of operatic sopranos being fat ladies famous for their ringing high C and not their (lack of) acting ability is really as outdated as plaids and polyester pants. Most sopranos (and mezzos) playing and singing frail and ill beauties on the stage today actually look and act their part (sometimes troublingly so... Magdalena Kozena, for one, can gain 30 lbs without even approaching being full-figured). And Ellie Dehn is one of them. She is still young yet and will likely grow to be quite a convincing singing actress. Vocally she (and her sweet and very feminine voice) had her best scene where it counted the most - in the beautifully softly sung final act. I suspect she sounded better elsewhere up in the mezzanines and the balconies, but from my seat to an extreme periphery of the orchestra level I had to strain to hear her low passages all night long... and everything above the stave was too loud.

The star of the show was undoubtedly Piotr Beczala's vocally sterling Rodolfo. He wasn't the heart-on-the-sleeve moody poet like you'd find in Rolando Villazon, but more of the good nature guy next door a la Pavarotti. Good chemistry with Mimi and the rest of the crew... You can believe he is overwrought with the loss of Mimi, but you aren't likely to be devastated by it. His was probably the best sung Rodolfo I've heard (and I have the DVDs of the show with Pavarotti, Carreras, Villazon, and Alagna)... He took the unwritten high C along with the soprano's written one at the end of the first Act, but it was so well sung that even a drama-addict like me can't even think of complaining about it.

Local girl Priti Gandhi got her first principal role debut in this show as the vivaciously flirty Musetta. It took me a while to get over that throbbing tremolo in her voice, but she proved an apt comedienne and had the audience laughing at all the right places. Jeff Mattsey remains a fresh and endearing Marcello even after eons of singing this role. It's a good cast playing an old fashion traditional show, kept mostly well together under the baton of Karen Keltner who conducted the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. The only real beef I had was that the orchestra was often too loud (which wasn't helped by a few singers' weakish lower register and the fact that Puccini had multiple instruments doubling the singing line in this show). Another beef that had nothing to do with the production or the performance itself was with the few audience members who talked and even checked their iPhone during the show. You may be relatively invisible to the people in front of you but surely not (thanks to that glowing LCD screen) to those on your rear!

Anyhow we are now looking forward to the 2nd opera of the season, Verdi's rarely performed Nabucco. I'm afraid Željko Lučić, the Serbian baritone who was supposed to sing the title role will be replaced for all 4 performances by American Richard Paul Fink. Still set to assay one of opera's most notorious voice-killing role of Abigaille, however, is French soprano Sylvie Valayre, who last visited us a year ago as Tosca.

Nabucco plays at the Civic Theater in downtown San Diego on February 20, 23, 26, 28 (m).

*Three production photos by Cory Weaver used in this post are courtesy of San Diego Opera.


Anna said...

Hello Smorgy

An aria popped into my head when I was reading the twitter thingy a few hours ago (now it's back to its usual disfunctional state on my PC). A lusty aria would be Zerlina's one in Don G after Masetto gets beat up.

Hope the weather in San D has settled.

Regards from the southern hemisphere,


Georg said...

Bonjour Smorgy,

After reading your text I clicked on the link to the sd opera and listened a bit to their explanations of Verdi and Nabucco. Splendid. I am not sure you would find an equivalent here in our countries.

I'll try to find out.


Michael Mattison said...

Smorg, thanks for this post.
Generally, how does San Diego's opera rank compared to other houses in the US? Seattle's consistently been one of the better houses over the years, and they've always been able to attract big names (not always a gurantee for quality, of course), but as California I'm only familiar with SF.
And you mentioned the orchestra being too loud, which of course in Puccini can be disastrous; as you pointed out, Puccini always doubled the vocal line in his melodies. Did he really not trust his singers, do you think? Or did he simply love his melodies so much he wanted orchestral accompaniment to every aria's vocal line?
Hope you're having a good weekend.

Smorg said...

Hiya Anna: Ah! Zerlina's Vedrai, carino is one of my favorite little arias indeed. :oD My favorite version is on Vesselina Kasarova's Mozart Arias CD. She has a way of being very erotically suggestive with her voice and it was something jarring hearing that next to her tracks as the very venomous Farnace. :oD

Hallo Georgy: I'm glad you like the SDO's clips! They show those on tv here a few times before and during the run of the opera. I always love catching them though sometimes I wish Dr. Reveles would give more time to discussing the music and a bit less with all the background digging. :o) He also does the pre-opera lectures for the SDO. I do my best to not miss those even though I have to get to the theater an hour early for it. :oD

Hiya Michael: I think most people would rank the SDO 5th or 6th among the US opera houses after the Met, Lyric Opera Chicago, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera (and possibly Houston Grand Opera). :o)

It's a reliable little company, I think. The season is short (used to be 5 operas per year running from January - May. They've cut 1 opera from the roster of this year and the next two seasons due to the economic downturn, though), but all the operas are well cast and performed (though always quite traditionally staged). We get to see a few big names every season... like Cura as Canio or Racette as Butterfly. I really quite like this company. :oD

Puccini and his instrumental doubling of the vocal line... I think it was because he really liked the melody and also because in his days the orchestra wasn't so prone to playing too loud (or tuning as high) as it does nowadays. :o( And the opera houses weren't as big either (Puccini never saw the new Met and the other barn size houses that came after it).

I think the same problem is what is plaguing the Wagner repertoire. Wagner buried his orchestra in this deep and mostly covered hole at Bayreuth but when his operas are done elsewhere now the size of the orchestra isn't adjusted to the less voice-friendly acoustics and the singers end up having to sing much louder. It's most frustrating for me when I take a liking to a Wagnerian voice now... only to see them go wobbly after only a few years (my beloved Nina Stemme is showing a rather wider vibrato in the middle of her voice now than a few years back, for instant).

Thank you every one for stopping by! :oD I hope February is going well your way. We've been having a heatwave for the past week, but the sky is cloudy now and there's a chance of rain tomorrow. I'm as happy as a duck! ;o)