Friday, June 12, 2009

La Boheme

It has been more than a week since I went to Opera Theatre of St. Louis to see this year's production of La Boheme and I'm still somewhat in shock. This is at least the fifth production of Boheme that I've seen. It might be the sixth but I'm not sure. And that doesn't count watching PBS productions.

It is hard not to do a decent production of Boheme. First, it has a simple but moving story. Mimi, a seamstress, lives in Paris supporting herself with her needle. In the same building live four men living the Bohemian lifestyle of artists. They have not much money but they are happy. The writer, Rudolfo, meets Mimi when her candle has gone out and she comes by their place for a light. They fall in love. Lots of beautiful love songs ensue. They are happy. Lots of joyous cafe music ensues. But Mimi is ill (tuberculosis) and of course eventually dies. Lots of beautiful sad death music ensues. The story is easy to follow, the music is gorgeous. How can any production go wrong.

I've been a season ticket holder at Opera Theatre since 1986. I've seen some fabulous productions (the La Traviata done a few years ago comes to mind; Billy Budd in 1993 was magnificent). I've seen only a few dogs (Under the Double Moon is the standard for dogs.). And I've seen good solid productions. I'm seldom disappointed. There is almost always something good I can say about the production (except Under the Double Moon which was horrible in all respects). I walked out of Christopher Alden's production of Marriage of Figaro because I didn't like the staging (I've seen Figaro a million times and I've never seen it staged where the count holds a knife to the throat of the countess, one of only a number of problems with that production) but I did think that the singing was beautiful.


I am at a loss to find anything nice to say about this year's La Boheme. The biggest problem was the voices. Through all these years I've sat in the same seats except when I've occasionally had to switch tickets. They are on the side in a theater with a thrust stage . I'm well aware that the sound is not as good as the sound for those that sit center. But I've always found that this is a good way to figure out just how far the singer is going to go. If they can sound fabulous to me in my seats - they are going places. If they can sound merely good that means they are fine singers. But sitting where I sit also shows up every flaw of technique and diction and I can tell when a singer needs work.

Derek Taylor as Rudolfo simply did not have a big enough voice for this production. Perhaps in a smaller production with a smaller orchestra he would have been fine. Perhaps he was having allergy problems. Perhaps I caught him on a bad night. Whatever. It was very difficult to hear him over the orchestra from my seats and that was a HUGE problem during moments when his arias are supposed to soar.

Alyson Cambridge (who was wonderful in Carmen a few years ago) was definitely having allergy problems the night I heard her. She has a lovely voice, but it was just not at its best that night. Amanda Majeski as Musetta got all the notes right and that's about all I can say for her. Timothy Mix as Marcello was actually fine when he sang alone. Unfortunately Marcello doesn't sing alone all that often. And that was the biggest problem. Whenever there was a duet or trio or quartet, the singers just did not seem to be together. Their cutoffs were sloppy, their voices did not blend. I blame the conductor.

What a disappointment. But it might have been mitigated by good acting or brilliant staging. The acting was pedestrian. There was no chemistry that I could see between Mimi and Rudolfo. And Majeski's portrayal of Musetta was so annoying that I wondered why anyone would have been attracted to her. The production is supposed to be a revival of the 2001 production. I saw the 2001 production and thought it was magical. Somehow the magic was lost in this production. The cafe scene especially just seemed ... crowded.

At the first intermission I turned to the people I was with and said I really wasn't liking it much. One of my friends, in relief, said she thought it had just been her, that she was just not in the right mood, but she thought it was a mess. At the second intermission we all decided to leave. We decided it was the worst La Boheme we'd seen and there was no reason to stay. We'd all seen it enough times; why leave a bad taste in our mouths?

But what a disappointment. I've never come out of a production of La Boheme ever before that I wasn't humming and excited and upbeat despite the sad ending. Not until last week.

Here's a nice version of O Soave Fanciulla I found to wash the taste out of my mouth.