It’s a brave opera company that puts on a big opera like “La Bohème” in a theater like Tacoma’s Rialto. No pit, no fly, no wings, no backstage and not even much stage room – it’s the kind of thing only a small community opera can get away with. Tacoma Opera’s bigger than that, but the decision to take Puccini’s tangled love-story about starving bohemian artists out of Tacoma’s bigger Pantages was a financial one made by a cautious board. And last Friday night it worked – but despite the venue, not because of it.
Tacoma Opera’s “La Bohème” was, in fact, a success, thanks to smart directing, skilful playing, and some excellent singing from most, if not all, singers.
The first problem with the theater was sheer volume. The 15-piece orchestra, sitting in the front five rows of the audience, followed expert conductor Bernard Kwiram with responsive and skilled playing – highlights were solos by concertmaster Janis Upshall, cellist Stuart Hake and flautist Teresa Mizukami-Stahnke. But the positioning meant that except for loud choruses or delicate solo arias the instruments covered a lot of the singing in the reverberant acoustic.
The second issue was the size of the stage. A clever, coffee-browned set by Jac Roberts whipped around to turn from apartment to café to tavern and back, but it left very little room for the busy crowd scenes of Act II. It also meant a lengthy, fussy change between the first two acts as endless numbers of (impressively period WWII) props were carted off. It didn’t give Musetta (a delightfully diva-ish Tess Altiveros) much room for her flashy displays, and it made director Barry Johnson’s blocking seem stilted and confined in the ensemble and fight scenes.
Yet ultimately, opera is about singing and drama – and this “Bohème” had both in spades. Stealing the show was Leslie Marks making her Tacoma Opera debut as Mimi, her soaring silvery soprano coating the well-known tunes with freshness and acting each stage of her love-affair and illness with complete conviction. Tess Altiveros made a terrific foil as the flirty, catty Musetta, her coloratura as sparkly as her jewelry.
Unfortunately, their men let them down. As Mimi’s lover Rodolfo Jon Farmer was stolid and dull, sounding like he had a cold and, except for the final scene, acting like he’d taken too much Benadryl. Daniel Oakden, as Musetta’s on-again-off-again lover Marcello, sang powerfully but failed to match her dynamism. Thank goodness for the supporting principals: Jonathan Silvia as the witty, marvelously basso Colline; Ryan Bede exceptionally honey-toned and dapper as Schaunard; and a very funny Brian Trunk as both the drunkard landlord Benoit and Musetta’s grumpy sugar-daddy Alcindoro.
In the café scene the adult and children’s choruses surpassed themselves with brilliant singing, looking perfect in Frances Rankos’ 1940s costumes.
As the lovers split apart and got back together, and as Mimi’s health deteriorated, the ensemble singing got better and better, the men blending richly. A suddenly-pregnant Mimi added an extra plot twist for the death scene, where we finally got some dramatic lighting, and Marks’ carried her long, fading lines to the very end with emotional intensity.
Next season the company will be doing Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” the Peter Brook adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Let’s hope that one, at least, is back in a big theater.
For more information, call 253-627-7789 or see tacomaopera.com