Review: John Caird’s Magical “La Boheme” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 10, 2017

As the third offering of  its 2017 summer season, the San Francisco Opera mounted English director John Caird’s imaginative production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

First performed in San Francisco in 2014, the production was revived with an attractive young cast, whose realization of Caird’s detailed staging, proved once again that opera singers can be good actors.

[Below: Act II (French Quarter) scene from John Caird’s production of “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Puccini’s music, the stagecraft from Caird’s cast and English designer David Farley’s ingenious sets are all reasons to enjoy this most popular of operas in the elegant War Memorial Opera House.

Arturo Chacon-Cruz’ Rodolfo and Erika Grimaldi’s Mimi

The cast was led by the Rodolfo of Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz and the Mimi of Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi. Chacon-Cruz’ smooth lyric tenor voice and winsome acting made for a convincing Rodolfo.

This was Chacon-Cruz’ second role at the San Francisco Opera, following a well-received series of performances as the Duke of Mantua a half-decade earlier [see Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti: “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012].

I had liked Erika Grimaldi as Micaela in the previous summer’s “Carmen” [Review: A Spanish “Carmen” from Calixto Bielto, May 28, 2016], but was less impressed vocally with Grimaldi’s Mimi.  In the early acts Grimaldi’s vocal performance had a sharp edge that did not always blend well with Chacon-Cruz’ ardent lyricism.

In the opera’s third and fourth act, however, Grimaldi effectively conveyed Mimi’s emotional reactions to the illness that was consuming her.

[Below: Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz, left) has begun to fall in love with Mimi (Erika Grimaldi, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ellie Dehn’s Musetta and Audun Iversen’s Marcello

Minnesota soprano Ellie Dehn was Musetta, a role that enlists Dehn’s large, expressive voice and insouciant acting style for the second act scene in the Latin Quarter.

Dehn’s bravura performance of Musetta’s waltz-time aria Quango me’n vo’ was a highlight of the evening. Dehn’s dramatic skills conveyed tempestuousness in the third act at the Barriére d’Enfer inn and despair at Mimi’s fourth act death bed.

Dehn also had been a brilliant Musetta in the 2014 mounting of this production [Review: Crocetto, Berrugi, Dehn, Mulligan Star in Well-sung, Intelligently-Acted “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 15, 2014].

[Below: Ellie Dehn as Musetta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Dehn is a skilled Mozartian [see Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015] who has sung lead soprano roles in all three of Mozart’s “Da Ponte” operas at the San Francisco Opera. She also was an impressive Micaela in last summer’s San Francisco Opera “Carmen” [see Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016.]

[Below: Audun Iversen as Marcello; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Norwegian lyric baritone Audun Iversen impressed as the painter Marcello, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Musetta tortures the character through most of the opera.

Already known to San Francisco audiences as Rossini’s Figaro [Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Audun Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013], Iversen’s resumé includes a wide range of roles in the lyric baritone category [see Review: Renée Fleming’s Reverential “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera – Chicago, October 28, 2014.]

Brad Walker’s Schaunard, Scott Conner’s Colline and other Cast Members

Illinois bass-baritone Brad Walker, a second year Adler fellow, was an affable and energetic Schaunard, whose dramatic skills conveyed the character’s heartbreak at Mimi’s death.

Walker, who had a been a memorable Zuniga in last summer’s wild Calixto Bielto staging of Bizet’s “Carmen” (cited above), is an example of the extraordinarily talented young opera singers chosen to be Adler Fellows.

[Below: Brad Walker as Schaunard; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kansas bass Scott Conner rounded out the foursome of Bohemian men. Colline’s big moment is the sentimental fourth act “coat aria” Vecchia zimmara senti which Conner performed with grace.

[Below: Colline (Scott Conner, seated left) joins in conversation with Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz, standing, center) and Marcello (Audun Iversen, right); editd image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

New Jersey character bass-baritone Dale Travis appears in two of his best roles, that of the landlord Benoit and of Musetta’s rich companion, Alcindoro.

Four members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus were cast in the smaller roles. Tennessee tenor Colby Roberts was the toy seller Parpignol, Pennsylvania tenor Michael Jankosky was a Prune Vendor, Hawai’ian baritone Torlef Borsting was a Custom-House Officer. Serbian bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic, a former Adler Fellow,  was a Custom-House Sergeant.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, always superb in performing the orchestration-rich operas of Puccini, was up to their high standard. Maestro Carlo Montanaro conducted.

John Caird’s Staging

The production was by the English theatrical genius John Caird with striking sets by English designer David Farley.

Caird directed the revival in San Francisco. The production is co-owned by the San Francisco Opera, the Houston Grand Opera and Canadian Opera Company. The production’s debut was at the Houston Grand Opera in 2012.

Caird, who is an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a prominent figure in British theater, has brought his legendary theatrical skills to the opera stage.

North Americans are familiar with his insightful productions of Puccini’s “Boheme” [see [Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014] and “Tosca” [see Review: Monastyrska, Dolgov, Dobber in Caird’s Dramatic “Tosca” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2015.]

Caird is masterful with great singing actors such as Patricia Racette, Raymond Aceto [A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010] and Sondra Radvanovsky [Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013.

The San Francisco cast proved to be fine actors, mastering the very detailed stagecraft of Caird, which is responsive to every line of “La Boheme’s” libretto. 

[Below: the third act of “La Boheme”, in which Erika Grimaldi’s Mimi and Arturo Chacon-Cruz’ Rodolfo (couple on right) make up while Audun Iversen’s Marcello and Ellie Dehn’s Musetta (couple on left) fight; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Caird’s contributions to opera are not limited to conceiving and directing productions. He is also a librettist for new operas. He collaborated with André Previn on the opera “Brief Encounter” which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 2009.

It is in Houston that Caird’s next venture as a librettist, for Tarik O’Regan’s opera “Phoenix”, will have its world premiere in the Houston Grand Opera’s 2018-19 season. The opera is about the long life of Mozart’s most famous librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The opera’s leading roles are being written for bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (as the young da Ponte) and baritone Thomas Hampson (as the older da Ponte).

David Farley’s Set Design

Among the ingenious features of this “Boheme” production are the sets by David Farley, and particularly the scene changes between acts 1 and 2 and between acts 3 and 4. Farley’s sets provide the opportunity for a quick change of scenes in each half of the opera. Puccini provided the inspiration, with both act 1 and 3 ending with Mimi and Rodolfo romantically leaving the stage arm in arm.

In this production, the drama never lags to accommodate set changes. In Caird’s direction in both scene changes, Mimi and Rodolfo move deep backstage, while Farley’s sets rotate, the first act scene in the garret transforming into the festive Latin Quarter and the third act Barriére d’Enfer turning back into the garret (with Rodolfo and Marcello in place).

[Below: David Farley’s Act I “La Boheme” sets; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

These set rotations utilize the device of Marcello’s paintings that crown the top of the garret, but whose backs are paintings that tower above the Latin Quarter (Act 2) and, later, the Barriére d’Enfer (Act 3).

[Below: the Latin Quarter (Act 2) sets from the 2014 San Francisco Opera production of “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend San Francisco Opera’s presentation of John Caird’s production of “La Boheme” to the veteran opera-goer, and particularly to the person new to opera.

The Saturday night audience included many children, many of whom I suspect were attending their first live opera performance. This production and cast in the War Memorial Opera House (that I often refer to as the “House of Puccini”) would be an excellent first opera for persons of any age.