Monday, April 28, 2008

Review: Portland State's La Boheme

Portland State University’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme received a strong performance on opening night (Friday, April 25) at Lincoln Hall. The singing and acting by the principals won over the audience with convincing portrayals of young, poverty-stricken artists and lovers in the midst of their struggle to survive in Paris in the 1830s.

It’s really a treat to watch young singers who are roughly the same age as the characters in the story. As the poet Rodolfo, Lucas Tannous sang with ardor and a beautiful tone. Tannous wisely paced his voice so that he could deliver Che gelida manina and all of the other demanding arias with élan. In the role of Mimi, Anna Viemeister showed plenty of poise to go along with her rich, soprano sound. Her last passages, sung while lying flat on her back, were riveting. I heard audience members blowing their noses – a sure sign Viemeister’s Mimi has touched their emotions.

Baritone James Rose created a solid Marcello, the painter and confidant of Rodolfo. Rose’s ability to convey the torment of a jealous lover was especially good during the scene at the Cafe Momus when Musetta, played wonderfully by Audrey Sackett, teased him mercilessly. Rose and Sackett also showered some sparks on the stage when their love was on the rocks during Act III.

Michael Miersma cut a dashing Schaunard, the musician, singing, dancing, mock fighting, and doing whatever was asked with the utmost panache. Miersma's baritone had lots of volume and a burnished quality. Jeremy Griffin made a case for philosopher Colline, but his voice seemed to be wearing out towards the end. Still, Griffin saved enough for Vecchia zimarra, when he bids farewell to his old coat before he goes out to sell it.

Ben Kinkley, in the role of the landlord Benoit, and Jason Duika as the sugar daddy Alcindoro were simply hilarious.

The stage direction of Tito Capobianco was outstanding in every which way. For starters, the stage area was pretty small, but that didn’t stop the four men from camping up the first scene with all sorts of buffoonery, including a mock sword fight. The agility and athleticism of Tannous, Rose, Miersma, and Griffin moved the story along, but didn’t detract from it. Sackett in the big dinning scene during Act II was no slouch either. She cavorted with all of the guys and made it look natural.

The scenery by Kim A. Tolman was just right for evoking the artists threadbare attic, a splashy outdoor setting for Café Momus, and a chilly customs post at the city gate. The period costumes added well to the overall effect as did the lighting by Jeff Forbes. Excellent supertitles, provided by Words for Music, helped the audience to follow the opera, which was sung in Italian.

Conductor Ken Selden and the PSU Opera Orchestra supported the singers with a fine understanding of Puccini’s music. They were a bit scratchy here and there with some intonation problems, but they never played too loudly for the singers. They also transitioned well from uptempo parts of the opera to the slower, more languid sections.

This production is another feather in the cap of PSU’s music department, which has won two first place awards in the National Opera Association Production Competition for The Marriage of Figaro (1999) and Don Giovanni (2002). Last year’s Cosi fan Tutte came in second. We will find out later how this one does.

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