Winsome, tony, and studded with overbooked bistros, Tanglewood is not exactly crawling with bohemians these days. But on Saturday, the nonconformist spirit was out in full force, with a concert staging of La Bohème that brought scandal, rain, and silly summer glamour to the Koussevitzky shed.
Leading a top-shelf Boston Symphony Orchestra in his best, black, untucked power-caftan, Latvian Andris Nelsons put a sensuous spin on Puccini’s hypothermic Christmas opera about starving rent evaders. His cast was a starry one, featuring willowy soprano Kristine Opolais and rising sexy American tenor Jonathan Tetelman.
Ably bringing up the rear, to varying degrees of credibility, a supporting clique of old reliables—Franco Vassallo, Elliot Madore, Luca Pisaroni, Paul Plishka—did their best to conjure Latin Quarter freezing in July.
Of course, the room’s big elephant had little to do with summer Yuletide at all: many of us were in fact considerably more intrigued to watch two of opera’s biggest celestial bodies, recently divorced and (at least promotionally) chock full of enduring “respect and admiration for one another,” hold their ex-connubial noses and try sharing a stage.
Although few of us saw trouble last summer, when Nelsons and Opolais presented tasteful excerpts from Porgy and Bess in the exact same Berkshire arena—okay, okay, we all saw trouble when Rezekne-born Opolais felt her bony, lily-white way through reminiscences about the high cotton, rich daddy, and good-looking mammy—the two announced their split this past March, yet pledged to keep performing as a unit.
And so, popcorn popped, many of us were amped for some minor meltdown in the garret, or at least a healthy dollop of psychodrama to go with all the cold hands and embroidery.
What we got instead, however, was a night of occasionally inaudible soft-singing and weirdo costume choices, a veritable Paris défilé de mode of outfits that ranged from the unseasonal (men in scarves) to the sometimes hilariously social-class-incongruous (more on that in a bit, when we get to Opolais and her sassy periwinkle peekaboo dress).
The “set,” adapted for concert stage by Daniel Rigazzi, nodded cursorily to the boho life, with spare props like a wood stove for Marcello and Rodolfo to huddle around,and a rickety table, around which les artistes might plot ways to outsmart their landlord (charming Plishka, in the dual role of Benoit/Alcindoro) and, finally, a dung-toned brocade fainting couch for Mimi’s demise.
Much of tonight’s huddling and plotting would be done by Tetelman’s Rodolfo, another of the production’s chief sources of intrigue. Here, the tenor was subbing in for a truant Piotr Beczala, who’d opted suddenly to replace Roberto Alagna at Bayreuth over the chance to sleepwalk through a signature part.
Casting Tetelman marked the evening’s big gamble—his previous big break with the role had been with the Fujian Grand Theatre in China.
The risk paid off, however: while small-voiced at the top of the show and demure with his first aria’s high C, Tetelman proved a stirring poet, his tenor smooth and his onstage presence evoking, at least in terms of its refined intensity, a young Michael Fabiano.
Playing Marcello, Vassallo proved another standout, delivering some of the evening’s most secure and reliable vocalizing. The Milanese baritone had worked with the BSO before, headlining as Amonasro in Tanglewood’s August 2016 Aida concert, and although his painter looked mature standing next to Tetelman on Saturday, he matched the tenor with great steadiness and assurance.
Canadian baritone Madore as Schaunard and Italian bass-baritone Pisaroni as coat-pawning Colline were stalwart but vocally bumpy buddies for the two men, with Madore in particular sounding alternately hoarse and off pitch, especially in the lower register, and Pisaroni delivering his own big aria without much sense of expansiveness or drama.
In a plum role she’d performed for the Met just this past season, boring Susanna Phillips brought her pinched and tired voice to the role of Musetta.
I must say, I’ve seen her a few times now, and I still don’t get Phillips. Bursting into the Momus Cafe in a va-voom red glitter gown of the Marilyn Monroe circa 1953 variety—but with nary a fun leg-slit because lord knows that would have seriously corrupted the vanilla quality she’s apparently on a mission to deaden every single one of her roles with—the soprano vamped and wobbled on about how she walks around alone in the street, people stop and stare, and ugh, sorry, zzzzzzz.
I do remember an exciting “Qual dolore, qual bruciore” moment, at which Musetta produced a single long, black pump with a glittery heel from out of her dress, and, well, that was something to see I guess?
In all this, the cast’s biggest name was of course Opolais, she of the flaxen hair and Jessica Rabbit mien. Hard to know if it was boredom with the material or the looming muumuu’d presence of her ex, but this must have been one of the least committed, least sartorially believable Mimis I’ve ever seen.
The Met’s preferred Rusalka anesthetized her lines with flat, hooty straight tones throughout the night, and was a largely catatonic presence onstage. Even a brief downpour (just at the point when she sang of the first sun of spring) didn’t get a rise out of her.
Worse, like her character, Opolais’ jumbled Italian diction, too, was dying a slow and painful death—a lot of “mah il miah nomayyy Looosheeyuh”s. Because she’s essentially a Hollywood Bowl singer, hers was a virginal seamstress who liked to toss her blonde curls in spaghetti straps and nude illusion gowns.
Of course, it should be interesting to see Opolais try her hand at other Puccini roles. Next season, for instance, the Met presents her spin on Suor Angelica. But this singer’s unevenness remains an enigma to some of us, and a source of personal concern to me. So successful as a Czech water sprite, perhaps she’s simply lost interest in playing human?
Photo: Hilary Scott