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Houston Grand Opera
Strikingly original: Caird's Bohème at HGO, with Pittas and Van Kooten
© Felix Sanchez 2013
Houston Grand Opera began its 2012–13 season on October 19 with Puccini's La Bohème, presented in a coproduction with San Francisco Opera and Canadian Opera Company that offers a strikingly original reading of this highly familiar opera. Set and costume designer David Farley's conception centers on Marcello's paintings and sketches; the painter's canvases comprise the scenery in each of the four acts. In the artists' garret of the first and final acts, the space of the cluttered room is created by walls of canvases that face away from the audience and characters onstage. Windows and sparse decor are also paintings, but turned to face outward. In the outdoor settings of Acts II and III, these same canvases, now all turned outward, compose the urban Parisian scenery in an arresting mosaic. This unifying idea underpins stage director John Caird's interpretation of the story as one painted into life: at each act's beginning, Marcello is seen painting, and in the outdoor settings, he is painting the very scene that greets the audience; when Mimì dies, Marcello sketches her until, bereft of inspiration in his grief, he throws down his sketchbook. The curtain then falls.
Within this broader conception, Caird's sensitive directing also realized a myriad of dramatic details, large and small — above all, the comic potential in La Bohème that many other productions treat cursorily. Of course, the Houston audience wept at the end of Act IV, but many also laughed audibly in response to the tightly choreographed antics among the impoverished artists. And credit goes to the nimble and energetic cast for realizing Caird's vision. Baritone Joshua Hopkins (Marcello), who effectively anchored the performance, bass Vuyani Mlinde (Colline), bass-baritone Michael Sumuel (Schaunard) and baritone Hector Vásquez (playing both Benoit and Alcindoro) all gave spirited performances that encompassed deft physical comedy and superb singing. Dimitri Pittas, as Rodolfo, also contributed expertly to the action, but most impressive was his fluid and penetrating tenor, which expressed an emotional range encompassing ardent but tender love, smoldering jealousy and abject sorrow. Katie Van Kooten sang with a soprano of richness and warmth, which was a delight to the ears, but only her sagging, halting deportment brought home Mimì's consumption. Soprano Heidi Stober gave an outstanding performance as Musetta: brilliant, brazen and overtly sexual, her Act II "Quando me'n vo" was fully the captivating scene that Puccini envisioned.
Conductor Evan Rogister led the HGO Orchestra in an impressively lean rather than lush performance: the dramatic pace never slackened as Rogister took care not to linger too long at moments of passionate intensity; and the texture, although it accommodated rich, expressive swells of orchestral sound, was always transparent enough to reveal a wealth of musical detail. Rogister and the HGO Orchestra thus furnished non-traditional sound to complement this innovative staging of Puccini, and it suited the score, which teems with motives of youthful humor and impetuousness, foreboding and reminiscence.
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