Cher Public

Snow business

bohemeLos Angeles saw the first U.S. performance of Giacomo Puccini’s snow-dusted weeper in 1897 just a year after the young Toscanini led the prima in Turin. LA Opera in its unending, some might say hellbent, quest to engage the company town in the art of the lyric theatre invited film director, former Broadway choreographer and perennial Academy Award nominee Herbert Ross, of Turning Point and Steel Magnolias fame, to stage our latest production of La Bohème way back in 1993. 

For its sixth revival down at the Music Center, directing duties have now been passed to Peter Kazaras, who had a distinguished career as a character tenor and now leads the opera program at UCLA. For one of the few operas in the repertoire that is practically bulletproof, Mr. Ross’s production nonetheless featured a staging far too fussy in spots for its own good. Mr. Kazaras has now gratefully streamlined it as best he could within the confines (literally) of the sets.

In spite of the fact that Bohème is an ensemble opera it does have a slight “boys vs. girls” feeling about it and last night the girls won. In spades. In her LA Opera debut, conductor Speranza Scappucci who led a spirited performance that highlighted the verve and poignancy of the score in equal parts. In possibly one of the busiest and most picturesque orchestrations in the repertoire she kept the orchestra constantly alert and graceful. f she seemed to lack that preternatural talent for anticipating a singer’s every breath she none the less proved an able accompanist to a fresh cast still wet behind their ears and some even singing roles for the first time.

The most important of these debuts was Georgian soprano, and LA Opera favorite daughter Nino Machaidze in her first Mimi. For a character suffering the last stages of tuberculosis the composer certainly calls for a soprano with full command of her respiratory functions. Ms. Machaidze has made her name in lyric coloratura roles and just only recently started branching out past Violetta and Juliette into Luisa Miller and now Puccini’s doomed seamstress.

Her voice carries easily into the auditorium at any decibel level with a dark core which grandly and vibrantly opens on the top. She nailed all the imposing climaxes just as adeptly as she dazzled in the quiet moments. Her acting was touching and she had a lovely moment where she put a scarf on Rodolfo as they were leaving the garrett that showed her love already in a quiet way. I walked into the theater concerned that Mimi might be pushing things too fast. I left in hopeful anticipation of her first Tosca.

I had not seen the last revival of this production in 2012 when Janai Brugger first sang Musetta but my thanks to whomever engaged her again. Flaunting one of the most luscious and seductive voices it has ever been my pleasure to hear, Ms. Brugger tore up the stage at the Cafè Momus in Act II with a performance that should easily assure her gainful employment for the rest of her career. In “Quando m’en vo” she made easy work of the composer’s many markings, never letting the phrases lose their musical shape. Her stage business with the waiters was so hilarious and over the top for a moment I feared we were going to get a Hello, Dolly! kickline.

The men were all good but really couldn’t keep up with their brilliant female colleagues. Nicholas Brownlee was generally wonderful as Colline and made a touching farewell to his coat in the last act; toward the end I realized I couldn’t recall the last time he had taken a breath. The most excellent Kihun Yoon was the Schaunard after his recent success here as Sharpless in Butterfly. It’s an especially rich voice and his was luxury casting filling out the ensemble.

Our Marcello was Giorgio Caoduro and he’s a lithe, handsome charmer who moved well about the stage. He has a warm natural baritone of some character and blended especially well with Rodolfo in the opening duet of Act IV making it a special moment in spite of an odd staging choice.

Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang swept the Operalia competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why after his performance as Rodolfo. He has the conversational quality in his singing necessary for a Puccini specialist and his voice has a little grain in it which makes it instantly recognizable. His phrasing is also wonderfully expansive when called upon at the big moments. Especially for someone of his young years. He was also very touching in Act III at the Barrier d’Enfer when he was comforting Mimi. That said I have a feeling his “Che gelida manina” in Act I might have gone a tad easier if the director hadn’t banished both he and Ms. Machaidze to their collective knees in the garret.

Now, about the improvements on Mr. Ross’ original mounting by Mr. Kazaras: I saw this production last in 2004 and although Mr. Ross had long since gone to his reward his ideas were still with us. Moving the time of the staging forward 50-some years to precisely 1888 gives the Bohemian’s garrett apartment a view of the half constructed Tour Eiffel and to see its further progress in the spring. It also allows for the introduction of bicycles into the proceedings as well as Musetta and Alcindoro’s Act II entrance in a very elegant horseless carriage (i.e. motorcar.) Happily swept away is the entire contrivance of the landlord Benoit and his wife as “visible” downstairs neighbors of the Bohemian quartet and their intrusive pantomimes during Act I which were an unnecessary distraction.

Odd was Mr. Ross’s opening Act IV in front of the painted scrim used for the big reveal of the Cafè Momus scene in Act II with Rodolfo and Marcello having “visions” of their lost loves through said scrim during the duet ‘O Mimi, tu piu non torni’. It doesn’t really work and it’s still with us. Act III is played on split levels with Rodolfo and Mimi in the street and Musetta and Marcello in a second story apartment above the tavern for the opening (having sexy time Rear Window style at curtain up) and then during the great quartet. That does work until Musetta drops her valise out of the window to the sidewalk below eliciting laughter from the audience at a superbly timed bit of stage business but obliterating the musical climax of the act.

I also have to strenuously object to Marcello “motor-boating” Musetta upon their reunion in Act II. I don’t care how big a laugh it gets, it’s wrong for the period.

Peter J. Hall’s costumes once again tip the favor to the ladies with naturally discreet ensembles for Mimi (a forest green dress for Act III was especially flattering) and of course a lot of bright colors and sparkle for Musetta. The men were mostly in grays and browns which makes them sadly blend into the relentlessly gray sets of Gerard Howland on which I will not waste any further space. They do, however, give an excellent backdrop to Duane Schuler’s very skillful lighting design.

Yet there’s an absolutely magnificent moment at the end of Act I where Rodolfo and Mimi have found their way down front, the garrett and side buildings pull back out of view, and out pops the biggest Disney moon you’ve ever seen as stage fog creeps across the floor and the lovers sing their final “Amor’s.” Those hoping to hear Puccini’s gentle postlude will strain over the mountainous applause as the curtain falls. That, my friends, is Hollywood.

Photo: Ken Howard/LA Opera

  • almavivante

    Whatever Speranza Scappucci’s merits as a conductor are (and having heard her conduct Sonnambula recently at Juilliard, I know she has them), she possesses such a wonderful name that…well, let’s say it in Italian: Si non e vero, e ben trovato!

  • Gualtier M

    Machaidze was a very well-received Musetta in that 2012 Salzburg “Boheme” with Netrebko and Beczala. I really think she is a full lyric with a lower center of gravity and not a high coloratura. Parts like Gilda and Lucia bring out a steely, unattractive timbre and highlight technical flaws. Mimi sounds like a good fit -- she is an attractive artist and I am glad to hear of her success.

  • PCally

    It’s been a while since I’ve read anything about Machaidze anywhere, I’d assumed she’d retired. I only saw her once as the worst Gilda I’ve ever seen. The vibrato was out of control and got worse the higher the voice went. Perhaps Mimi suits her better or she’s gotten it together.

  • grimoaldo

    I had only heard Nino M in broadcasts from the Met as Gilda, I agree PCally, I thought she was dreadful, and Fille du Regiment and I didn’t like her in that, at all, either.
    But then I saw her live in Berlin in the wonderful production of “Vasco da Gama” as Ines and she was most impressive, and moving, in a long long role.
    I wish her all the best and look forward to hearing and seeing her in other roles she may take on which I think will suit her better than the “lyric coloratura” parts she started off with.

  • Porgy Amor

    I knew Machaidze had not retired, but my impression was that “they” (the nebulous “they” at theaters, talent agencies, and what remains of record companies, for she was making solo CDs for Sony almost immediately) were trying to make her happen as another Netrebko type at the dawn of this decade, and she didn’t really catch on. Then “they” moved on to Opolais, Peretyatko, Yoncheva, and whoever else, and her profile lowered while she continued to work a lot.

    I wasn’t favorably impressed by what I heard in the broadcasts from the Met grimoaldo mentions, nor her Bellini Elvira with JDF in the Bologna DVD, but maybe she was just in the wrong Fach.

  • gustave of montreal

    I wonder what Mack means by ” busiest and picturesque orchestration ” of Bohême ?

  • semira mide

    Machaidze was a disappointment as Elvira and her Met performance was not good in my opinion. Therefore it was quite a surprise that she was not only good, but VERY good last summer at the Rossini Opera Festival. Hopefully she’ll sing more Rossini because we could use more “real” Rossini sopranos!

    Ironic that Dudamel is getting publicity before ever having lifted his baton for LA Opera. It is a wonderful PR boost for the Opera that he is conducting for their anniversary year. And of course most opera goers don’t realize that to have a successful performance requires a lot of prep. He’s lucky that someone else has done the prep for him.

    Can’t help thinking of the expanded rep LAOpera could have if they were to use Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena ( the Carnegie Hall of the West, it has been called) I suppose we should be thankful LA Opera’s home is not the Shrine Auditorium.

    • Camille

      OMG Yes about the Shrine! Talk about Barns!! Almost puts Sybil’s out of business in the Massive Department.

      Interesting about how differently Machaidze has sung in diverse roles but sometimes that’s the way it is, and things get sorted out very differently in the end. Or not.

    • fletcher

      The Ambassador Auditorium is a gem but probably too far from the west side to be an useful second home. It also has neither pit nor fly tower, effectively limiting the stage to concert performances. Welton Becket’s Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is another elegant venue, possibly better suited to staged opera, newly adjacent to public transportation, but in dire need of restoration. Pacific Opera Project is using the newly renovated Ford Amphitheater (next to the Hollywood Bowl) for their Star Trek-themed Entführung this fall.

      • Henry Holland

        The Ambassador does have great sound but it’s not opera-ready and the Worldwide Church of God doesn’t exactly rent it out very much. The Shrine is used for rock concerts and EDM events, it’s perfect for that, but opera? Not in the slightest. Santa Monica Civic is too big, as are places such as the Palladium. My first opera heard > went to a performance of was A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Wiltern, it was a very bad venue for the sound, the voices disappeared. As far as I know, LAO hasn’t been back there. There’s some of the theaters on Wilshire nearer Beverly Hills that might work, but to be honest, if the county can ever get the renovations of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion funded, that’s still probably the best option.

        • fletcher

          Is the Civic really too big? I’ve never been inside. From the outside it looks like it has a fly tower, which would be useful. Anyway, I don’t think anyone was suggesting LAO abandon the Dot, but it would be nice to have a second, smaller venue (big bigger than REDCAT), if not for a second company (eg NYCO at State/Koch) then something like the Howard Gilman at BAM, which I think is just over half the size of the Met.

        • semira mide

          Well, the Ambassador is apparently looking for some more “renters” as far as I know. And although it wouldn’t accommodate productions ( at least big ones) it would be ideal for semi-staged works. I recently had a discussion with an bel canto enthusiast who had worked at the Ambassador in the old days. He seemed to agree that it could work. One can always dream.

  • semira mide

    So, Wagner at the Shrine and Rossini at the Ambassador!

  • Patrick Mack

    The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is only suitable for livestock at this point.

    San Francisco Opera used to play the Shrine in days of yore and at one point it was mentioned as the location for our George Lucas/Industrial Light & Magic Ring Cycle that never happened.

    The Wiltern was used for opera every now and then but it’s another cow palace.

    The Broad Stage in my neighborhood is perfect for recitals because it only seats 500 but their prices are ruinous.

    The Ambassador and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus were THE recital locations when I was a teenager.

  • semira mide

    Royce Hall was fantastic, especially when they had the doors open to the outside and students walking by could hear singers ( with big voices) rehearsing for recitals.

    The Pasadena Civic had some pretty fantastic concerts at one time. Heard Solti conduct there ( not opera however) and the place just resonated. Not sure what renovations might have done.

  • Robert47

    A real disappointment. Tired sets (first used in 1997); off-mettle singers; a conductor who believed the score as either forte or fortissimo. The music was in the way; the acting was in the way; clumsy. But, I suppose these war-horses still bring in the numbers. Why didn’t Placido Domingo (or his wife) exercise some artistic general direction?