Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011

July 5th, 2011

Perhaps there are other long-time opera goers besides myself that have a special opera, for which every performance they have ever attended has been a world class, memorable event with a cast that within a few years becomes to be thought of as legendary. Mine is Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

I have never seen the opera performed without a cast so stellar that I can brag that I was there to see them.

My Mimis include Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Tebaldi, Dorothy Kirsten, Mirella Freni, Teresa Stratas, Diana Soviero, Ileana Cotrubas and Angela Gheorghiu. Marilyn Horne was my first Musetta and Marie Collier my second. I have seen Luciano Pavarotti in four separate casts, and also Renato Cioni, Sandor Konya, Jose Carreras, Giacomo Aragall, Luis Lima, Rolando Villazon and Piotr Beczala. Ingvar Wixell and Sesto Bruscantini have been among my Marcellos; Dale Duesing and Timothy Nolen among my Schaunards, and my Collines have included Simon Estes, Samuel Ramey and Nicolai Ghiaurov. My first ever Benoit and Alcindoro was the great Salvatore Baccaloni.

For this reason, I pick and choose carefully which “Boheme” performances to attend, so as not to jinx my perfect record.

Lomeli and Martinez

That said, I had no hesitation about traveling to Santa Fe to see the Rodolfo of David Lomeli and the Mimi of Ana Maria Martinez.

The 29 year old Lomeli is still relatively unknown. The Mexican tenor is a protege of Placido Domingo, literally coming out of nowhere to win Domingo’s Operalia prizes for both opera and zarzuela. He has spent his last couple of years as an Adler Fellow for the San Francisco Opera. His biggest role in San Francisco to date has been Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in a couple of performances in Summer 2009, and Rinuccio in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” that fall.

Last fall, Lomeli opened the season in the small part of the Messenger in Verdi’s “Aida” and covered Ramon Vargas in the title role of Massenet’s “Werther”. Had Vargas been unable to appear, no one was worried that Lomeli would not have saved the show. (Lomeli did triumphantly sing Werther in the dress rehearsal when Vargas was feeling unwell.)

I predict that he will open a future season of the San Francisco Opera, and his future assignments at that “singer’s house” will not be in small roles like the Egyptian Messenger.

[Below: Mexican tenor David Lomeli as Rodolfo; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez has a more established reputation. She is moving from the lyric repertory into the more spinto roles such as Mimi. Her voice is now full and rich and beautiful throughout its range.

[Below: Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez as Mimi; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Lomeli and Martinez needed only to sing their successive arias in “Boheme’s” first act, respectively Che gelida manina and Mi chiamano Mimi for me to place them on my honor roll of great performances over the 49 years I have been going to this opera.

Notes on the Production

Few would dare mess with the flow of events in”Boheme”, nor would there be any reason to do so. No one who buys a ticket expects a departure from what Puccini has written.

I am a fan of production designer Paul Curran, whose productions of Britten’s “Billy Budd” at Santa Fe Opera and of Berg’s “Lulu” in Chicago were the best productions of each of these operas I have ever seen.  [See my reviews at: Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008 and  “Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008.]

His “Boheme” is a more modest effort, with Kevin Knight’s sets designed to move quickly from the first to second acts and then from the third to final act so as to perform the opera with only one intermission (a single intermission the objective of most opera companies for as many operas as possible). Rotating walls accomplished this objective.

This production hints at Paris, but does not immerse us in the city, as do the other “Boheme” productions I have reviewed here. (See Opera National de Paris: Tres Magnifique La Boheme at the Bastille October 21, 2005 and The Luisotti “Boheme” in San Francisco – November 22, 2008.)

Singing and Sticking to the Story

What does vary from performance to performance are the voices. For those who have the opportunity to see the Santa Fe “Boheme”, with its superb cast of actor-singers, all nicely matched vocally, I recommend you do so.

No matter how often one has seen the opera performed, one is rewarded by observing how every detail of Puccini’s music and the libretto he sets, is perfectly suited to the moment.

Balance is everywhere – between the voices, between moments of sweet melody and periods of action, between moments of pathos and those of comic relief.

All of the “Boheme’s” I have seen – even Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Strasbourg production, which I saw at the San Francisco Opera, that emphasized the poverty of the Bohemians – followed Puccini’s stage directions explicitly. “Boheme” is so tightly and intelligently written that even if one could think of an alternative way of presenting the story, I doubt that it could improve on what Puccini and his librettists have given us.

Curran follows the story and the stage directions. That’s what a stage director needs to do and that’s what the Santa Fe audience got.

[Below: the landlord Benoit (Thomas Hammons, center in grey suit) is tricked into leaving without his rent money by the Bohemian roommates Schaunard (Keith Phares, seated left) and clockwise, Rodolfo (David Lomeli), Colline (Christian Van Horn) and Marcello (Corey McKern); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Four guys live in a Parisian garret. They outwit their landlord by getting him to admit to extramarital relationships (or, at least, interest in getting into one). Rodolfo stays behind from a rendezvous with his roommates at the Cafe Momus for a few minutes to finish an article. Mimi arrives at the garret’s door. She loses her key (or pretends to – here the stage director gets a tiny bit of wiggle room) and Rodolfo finds it. Mimi wants to go out with Rodolfo and his friends, and, though Rodolfo would prefer to stay in the garret with her, agrees to take her if she will say she loves him. They leave for the Momus arm in arm.

Musetta’s Stupendous Comedy

Although all the Bohemians and the two women with whom they are associated have wonderful things to sing in the second act, it is Musetta that is the dominant presence in the act. Heidi Stober, this performance’s Musetta, excelled in this part.

With a past year that included triumphs in Houston (seeXerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010) and San Francisco (see “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010), Stober proved mesmerizing in this part, that effectively utilizes her lyric voice and soubrette personality.

[Below: Musetta (Heidi Stober, holding tricolor) is carried by her lover, Marcello (Corey McKern, left, carrying Musetta) and Colline (Christian van Horn, right).]

Marcello and the Roomies

Rodolfo and his roommates have much to do as an ensemble. Colline in this production was sung by Christian Van Horn, whose resonant basso voice lent unaffected gravitas to Colline’s fourth act farewell to his coat. Keith Phares, playing Schaunard, even with the least to sing, left a favorable impression.

But of Rodolfo’s roomies it is Marcello, sung by Corey McKern, who takes ownership of one of Puccini’s greatest melodies, the third act duet with Mimi (actually less a duet than a conversation between baritone and soprano set to Puccini’s heavenly music). McKern and Martinez sang with conviction (this is after all a much more realistic discussion of amorous relationships than one usually finds in opera) while meeting the vocal expectations of this great passage.

But, of course, the third act does not end there. Puccini bathes us in yet more waves of melody, as Lomeli’s Rodolfo reveals to McKern’s Marcello his concerns about Mimi’s failing health, and then Martinez’ Mimi, finally aware that she is dying, reconciles with Rodolfo in yet another melody-infused duet that solidifies “La Boheme’s” position as the most popular Italian opera of all time.

The act ends with a new round of arguments between Stober’s Musetta and McKern’s Marcello, that occur as Mimi and Rodolfo decide to spend the rest of the winter together. Formally it is quartet, yet the two lovers who are rebuilding their relationship are in a different space than the two fighting as their relationship deteriorates.

The final act is divided between the comic activities of the four men who inhabit the garret, and the tragic arrival of Musetta with the dying Mimi. Even the tragic part of the scene is skillfully written by Team Puccini to mix the palliative, though hopeless, activities of Musetta, Marcello and Colline (Schaunard is the realist here) with the farewell between Mimi and Rodolfo.

[Below: Rodolfo (David Lomeli, left) takes the arm of the dying Mimi (Ana Maria Martinez, second from left), assisted by his roommates, from left to right, Marcello (Corey McKern), Schaunard (Keith Phares) and Collline (Christian Van Horn); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The entire cast performed the opera as it was meant to be sung and acted it just as Puccini intended that they should. With “Boheme” that assures you of a wonderful evening. Based on my experience with past “Bohemes” I believe that anyone should find it a memorable one as well.

Leonardo Vordoni was an excellent conductor. Thomas Hammons continues his series of character parts at Santa Fe Opera with fine performances in the comic roles of Benoit the landlord and the much-abused moneybags, Alcindoro.

For my reviews of other performances by Ana Maria Martinez, see: Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009, and also,

Gripping “I Pagliacci” Revival at Lyric Opera of Chicago – February 25, 2009.

For my review of another performance by David Lomeli, see: Gavanelli’s Commanding Presence as San Francisco Opera’s Gianni Schicchi – September 15, 2009.

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