The Atlanta Opera opened its 2015-16 season with warmly received, though uneven, performances of Puccini’s eternal masterpiece La Boheme. The new production, the brainchild of General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, promised to once again (his words) reimagine the work for the benefit of today’s audience, a most suspect practice that tends to elicit a great deal of scrutiny from your friends at newoutpost. In order to achieve this, among other things, we are told that the opera’s time period has been updated to the 1890’s, likely for the dazzling costume and stylistic opportunities afforded by the Belle Epoque (which costumer designer Martin Pakledinaz fully exploited). In truth, we are happy to report this as one of Mr. Zvulun’s better efforts, displaying less of the self-serving, intrusive devices (mostly in the form of projections) that have plagued his prior productions, and relegating them to the natural enhancement of the scenic tableau. The slowly rolling clouds above the garret, or the carefully realized terminus leading to the gates of Paris added to the beauty of the proceedings without ever distracting from Puccini’s musical designs. Recalling the excesses from last season’s Madama Butterfly, this was quite the welcomed change.
While the production values and Mr. Zvulun’s direction did much to keep the proceedings running smoothly, it came as a surprise that a constant disconnect between maestro Arthur Fagen and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra made for an untidy performance of Puccini’s classic work. As heard on the evening of Tuesday the 6th, this reading of the orchestral score seemed to unveil all its difficulties and pitfalls, resulting in a sluggish, uneven pace, amounting to a frustratingly tentative performance. Surefire moments, such as Mimi and Rodolfo’s half-hearted break up that closes the third act and the orchestral introduction to “sono andati” in the fourth, were realized with little inspiration and failed to land their desired cinematic effects. Unfortunately, the evening’s shortcomings where not isolated to the pit.
Making her Atlanta Opera debut with these performances of La Boheme, soprano Maria Luigia Borsi boasts an impressive resume of high profile assignments with leading opera companies around the world. Indeed, her billing generated much excitement among local aficionados eager for the chance to hear an Italian Mimi of great repute. Sadly, the anticipation only underlined her disappointing impersonation, for as Mimi she revealed a young paper flower maker of limited charm. The possessor of an essentially lyric instrument, she seemed intent on forcing it out of its comfort zone by way of an overtly central approach, which undernourished the notes around the lower and middle passagio, all the while limiting the fluency and vibrancy of her phrasing. The top portion of her voice was short, and proved serviceable mostly when shoved forward with audible effort; while her tone, though Italianate and congruent with this brand of music, was often hooty and underpitched. Her limitations made for an unsatisfactory first act, where the lack of lyric freshness and vocal spontaneity (if soft singing was attempted, it was not heard), affected the legato of her famous aria “Mi chiamano Mimi” and yielded a rather matronly heroine.
This heavy handed Mimi was better heard in the more dramatic pages of the third and fourth acts, though the sameness of phrasing did little to propel her character past the footlights. It was, to be sure, and unfortunate first impression of an artist that came so well recommended. An occasional phrase sometimes revealed traces of what must have been a very important voice, almost inspiring an investigation as to how it has arrived to its current state. Inadvertently, her efforts throughout the night, though appreciated for their intent, did much to confirm the strength of Puccini’s music at the hands of a less than ideal exponent, though we should not mince words: the part has a very special soul and it deserves much better.
In comparison, the Musetta of soprano Leah Partridge improved the situation, but not by much. Making a transition towards heavier parts from her customary bel canto roles (we have fond recollections of her Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore heard back in 2009) has introduced some degree of stress in her vocalism resulting in an unwelcomed shrillness in her otherwise fresh lyric instrument. This was most evident during Musetta’s famous waltz, which seduced mostly by grace of her winning stage deportment (she certainly has the physique du role) while her singing was held back by an occasional spread in tone and overcompensation in pitch. As in the case of Ms. Borsi, these proclivities would come to her aid with better results in the remaining acts, ranking her impersonation satisfactory but no more. We hope Ms. Partridge succeeds in resolving these transitional woes, for our previous hearings recall an imaginative artist with a fine technique.
Fortunately for the season opener, the male contingency fared better, and was led by the Rodolfo of tenor Gianluca Terranova. A country man of Ms. Borsi, Mr. Terranova shared with her that recognizable timbre given to singers born by the Mediterranean, and making them so well suited to the works of the great Italian masters. The similarities between these artists, however, went no further. While Ms. Borsi’s voice was a case of limited functionality and creativity, Mr. Terranova’s was the opposite. His singing was equally responsive on all registers, and while his essentially lyric instrument was not remarkable in size, it held the public’s ear by its attractive sunny glow and through the elegance of his phrasing . The core of this instrument, though remarkably compact, could easily lean on its edge (particularly as he ascended the staff) to impress the listener, and his famous act one offering, “Che gelida manina” was elegantly paced, artfully articulated, and ringing at its climax. His voice also featured a genuine squillo, which he smartly reserved to underline moments of most intense significance. These qualities would remain consistent for the duration of the evening with little hint of wear or strain, allowing Mr. Terranova with free reign to express Rodolfo’s passions. He was also a fine actor, equally at home relishing in childish games with his fellow male colleagues as well as languishing in his loss at the close of the curtain. Next to Ms. Borsi’s lukewarm achievement, he may have well saved the night. Yet he did not accomplish this alone.
Entrusted with the part of the painter Marcello, baritone Trevor Scheunemann scored a big success as Rodolfo’s main pal. A tall, handsome young artist, Mr. Scheunemann made a believable lover to Ms. Partridge’s stunning Musetta. But his singing offered less caveats, for while he may not possess the Italianate appeal of his lead colleagues, nor Mr. Terranova’s informed phrasing, he did offer a gossamer baritone of solid bearing, and singing that set itself apart by its great sonority and steady production. The philosopher Colline, another member of the Latin Quarter brat pack, was well realized by bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, though his famous coat aria brought into question the first portion of the hyphenation. Nonetheless, he made a fine comedic duo with the pocket Schaunard of baritone Theo Hoffman, who made up for the restrictions a small instrument through his stage antics and charming personality. Rounding off the cast was bass-baritone Alan Higgs, a fine Antonio in last season’s Marriage of Figaro, here solidly serving double duty as the landlord Benoit and old rich Alcindoro.
The Atlanta Opera’s next offering, David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, will open in November as part of the company’s new Discoveries series. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org