A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 31, 2011
03:35 PM
Classically Speaking

Youth—and Puccini—are Served by UW Opera’s “La Boheme”

Youth—and Puccini—are Served by UW Opera’s “La Boheme”

 In the world of advertising, the old adage is “sex sells.” In the world of opera, there is a parallel truism: “Puccini sells.”

The axiom was proved again Friday night at the Music Hall, as UW Opera opened its season with one of the most popular operas of all time, Puccini’s La Boheme. When Boheme works, one heaves the sighs of true love, laughs at the high-jinks of youth in the face of destitution, holds back a tear as fate dons the mask of death and hopes yet again—no matter how many times one has seen it—that somehow this time Mimi survives her illness.

And when it doesn’t quite work? All of the above still unfold, it’s only a matter of degree.

Fortunately we were blessed by a cast that ranged from very good to excellent, a well-blended orchestra under the steady hand of James Smith, and William Farlow’s sensibly engaging direction.

First kudos go to the Mimi of Shannon Prickett; she may not possess the iconic physical frailty ideally encountered in the role, but she has the more important attributes—a vocalism that is rich and unforced, equally capable of a sudden drop to a sustained whisper or being ratcheted up to a thrilling forte without a hint of strain.

Her Rodolfo, Aldo Perrelli, offered a pleasingly light voice that sounded more confident and relaxed in Act III than in the crucial first act. It is encouraging that he is apparently developing his instrument carefully; one expects him to eventually acquire a more robust timbre without sacrificing his smooth upper range. The one area that could be faulted in the star-crossed pair was a relative lack of physical chemistry; while one wouldn’t describe the relationship as occurring at arm’s length, neither were we sensing that hormone-pulsing urgency that underlines nearly every bar of Puccini’s matchless musical ardor.

But Bohemes rise and fall on the whole cast, as the camaraderie among the four young men is critical to the overall ebb and flow of the opening and closing acts. Not to worry: Michael Roemer as Marcello set a high vocal standard from his very first notes in Act I, while John Arnold as Schaunard and Benjamin Schultz as Colline proved adept at both roguish high spirits and sudden turns of sincere sentiment. Schultz didn’t waste a phrase in his spotlight moment of the Act IV aria in which he bids a fond farewell to his coat.

Of course another mandatory ingredient of a successful Boheme is Musetta’s signature coquettishness, a significant foil to the innocent ardor of Mimi. Lindsay Sessing was strikingly petulant and sassy in her Act II “Musetta’s Waltz” and suitably fuming in her Act III duet with Marcello. One looks forward to hearing her down the road in a leading role.

The sets of Liz Rathke were appropriately sparse for the garret scenes, and aided greatly in the final act by the brown-dominated costumes and suffocating lighting of Steven Peterson. As Mimi drew closer to her demise, one almost felt sucked into a palpable despair by the deepening gloom of the visuals.

So this is a Boheme without a visible moon for the Act I love duet, or the dancing snowflakes of Zeffirelli’s famous production, but it does give us a significant pleasure one won’t get at the Metropolitan Opera, or most other august venues: Here Puccini’s cast of twenty-somethings really are portrayed by singers of an accurate age. UW Opera has given us a Boheme with future pros who sing their hearts out and use their heads.

In other words, it’s a Boheme well worth seeing and hearing—and you get one more chance Tuesday night at 7:30 … if  you can get a ticket.

Photo of Lindsay Sessing, Shannon Prickett and John Arnold courtesy of UW Opera.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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