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Opera Company of Philadelphia
Opera Company of Philadelphia's "visually inventive" Bohème, directed and designed by Livermore
© Kelly & Massa 2013
In recent seasons, Opera Company of Philadelphia (now helmed by general director David Devan and music director Corrado Rovaris) has made strides in programming, and in both musical and staging standards. Each season combines broadly known titles (in OCP's traditional and inspiriting home, the 1857-built Academy of Music) with more contemporary fare, often in the Kimmel Center's 650-seat Perelman Theater down the street. Casting remains a mix of genuine coups and puzzling loyalties; the company draws heavily on graduates (and even current students) of the city's two leading conservatories, the Curtis Institute and AVA. Indubitably, Rovaris's presence and capabilities have contributed to a welcome and necessary improvement of the orchestra and chorus over the past decade.
OCP's season began with La Bohème (seen Oct. 7), most notable for an overall stylistic rightness stemming from Rovaris's orchestra — measured but idiomatic and flowing — and a visually inventive and colorful, if sometimes highly distracting, design by Davide Livermore, who also directed. A video screen inside the easel of Marcello (Troy Cook, sounding healthy and giving every word its due) was augmented by other screens and a cyclorama: it displayed apt paintings and details (largely Parisian images, flowers or female portraits) drawn primarily from Philadelphia's wonderful Museum of Art and recently repositioned Barnes Collection. Renoir, Cézanne, Cassatt, Pissarro and van Gogh predominated. Good marketing, it was a theatrical gamble worth trying, and it was largely successful, though occasionally one found oneself anticipating image changes according to verbal or musical cues instead of attending to the performers. Act II featured a nice fade from street to café, but the busy blocking recalled Livermore's 2006 OCP debut, a brightly frenetic vacuum-cleaner-centered Cenerentola. Leaping waiters and prancing ballerinas obscured the principals and key plot points, and the entrance and later centering of Musetta on a sliding platform looked awkward (besides yielding unintended mechanical noise). Livermore provided the distractions of Zeffirelli's Act II without the spectacle. This show's wintry Act III was best.
Alongside Cook, the international-class performance was that of AVA-trained Bryan Hymel as Rodolfo: ardent and lively onstage, Hymel produced a stream of healthy, ringing tone that — if not exactly Italianate — was exciting in its impact and notable for clarity of diction. After an appealing Desdemona here in 2010, Norah Amsellem returned for an attractive, well acted but vocally uneven Mimì; the soft phrases glowed with passion and beauty, but any access of pressure or rise above the staff at more than a piano dynamic occasioned a thin, edgy quality that vitiated her good intentions. The positive side of OCP's loyalty in casting was shown by the use of Cook and the always stageworthy, sonorous house favorite Kevin Glavin (Benoit/ Alcindoro). Less explicable was the return of Leah Partridge, a pretty but unmemorable Violetta two years ago; here, her by-the-numbers Musetta proved inaccurate and uningratiating in tone. Bass Jeremy Milner's assets as Colline — youth, height and strong lower tones — must be set against tremulous vocal production and cloudy diction. Craig Verm, making his OCP debut as Schaunard, forced an acceptable-sounding voice throughout the afternoon.
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