Two La Bohèmes to remember
 

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posted Friday, March 1, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 9

Two La Bohèmes to remember
Fabiano, Caballero shine in current Seattle Opera production

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

LA BOHÈME
SEATTLE OPERA
Through March 10


For anyone's first opera experience, he or she could hardly do better than the near-perfect La Bohème currently at Seattle Opera. And for the jaded old opera-goer, this is one to make the blood race as if discovering something new and magnificent. There is simply no element in this production - be it singing, staging, orchestra, lighting, costumes, or chorus - that I've seen done better anywhere.

First and foremost, there is the performance of tenor Michael Fabiano as Rudolfo, making his Seattle debut (in the Friday and Sunday shows). His combination of passionately nuanced and detailed acting, along with a gorgeous voice that pours out matching passion in multicolored phrases of perfect legato and glorious high notes ... well, I've never seen the like, not even from a Pavarotti or Bjoerling. The goosebumps came as much from Fabiano's acting as from his thrilling sound. He is young and very new to opera fame (see him in the documentary on the process of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in the recent DVD The Audition), yet his portrayal was like that of a seasoned artist. And he is a man who seems to live for the opportunity to be on stage, reaching out and touching you. I could scarcely put down my binoculars for fear of missing some detail of his Rudolfo. And, yes, Michael Fabiano is handsome, especially with a hairpiece that hides his premature balding.

The opening night Rudolfo of Francesco Demuro was no less professional, but his voice was small enough to be often inaudible in the ensemble numbers, and it lacked warmth and nuance of tone. Nor was his acting anything special. As his Mimi, however, Elizabeth Caballero was everything one could wish for: totally convincing acting and a voice of great warmth and even tone from top to bottom. Moreover, she possessed that rare ability to pour out her sound in swelling crescendos that reduced this reviewer to sobs of joy. (Think of the young Tebaldi but with a voice of less amazing size.) Every note expressed feeling, so that her death had real impact. Fabiano's Mimi, Jennifer Black, displayed a voice of equal ease and beauty, but she was not nearly so affecting in her phrasing and acting.

STRONG SUPPORT
All the remaining cast were excellent in all ways, with the one minor fault in that Andrew Garland's voice was small for the part of Schaunard. The always-reliable Arthur Woodley made a surprisingly youthful Colline. The baritones singing Marcello were equally wonderful both in voice and acting, although opening night's Michael Todd Simpson was livelier than Keith Phares in the Friday/Sunday cast. Opening night's Musetta, Norah Amsellem, sounded fresher of voice than in her previous Micaelas here but was marred by squally tops. But her Musetta was finely detailed and visually very effective. The other Musetta was Jennifer Zetlan, whose voice was underpowered for the part, but who sang very well and had much better high notes.

A major character in the brilliant but difficult-to-stage Act II is the chorus. Actually, there are two choruses and a small marching band. Maestro Carlo Montanaro managed the adult and children's choruses with a precision and vitality that I have never heard matched. Both choruses were simply magnificent, with some of the children adding immeasurably with acting that was both charming and utterly convincing. Of course, the effectiveness of the staging of the opera as a whole was mostly the result of the convincing direction of Tomer Zvulun, from Israel.

A FRESH TAKE
Montanaro's conducting throughout the evening was propulsive, very supportive of the singers, and full of effective and well-chosen moments of expansion, slowing his otherwise speedy tempi for added expression. The score seemed swept clean of all its heavier old clichés, and its brilliance showed with uncommon clarity.

Perhaps the most surprising element of all was the production itself. Sets (originally for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) by Seattle native Erhard Rom were absolutely gorgeous, especially the snowy Act III. Even the impoverished garret of Acts I and IV was attractive and effective. Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz worked well, and the lighting by Robert Wierzel (whose previous Seattle Opera work was especially brilliant in Turn of the Screw in 1994) was beautiful. Photographs of Paris of the era, projected on the curtain during intermissions, were a great addition. The photo taken of our cast at the closing moment of the Café Momus scene was immediately shown on the intermission curtain, a lovely touch.

Performances run through March 10 (a matinee). Whether you choose the superior Mimi of the opening-night cast (March 2, 6, and 9) or the astounding Michael Fabiano of the other cast (March 1, 3, 8, and 10), you just can't go wrong with this show.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.



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