Cincinnati ‘La boheme’

panikkarnicole cabell

My review of La boheme on today’s Cincinnati Enquirer:

Moving performances impress in ‘La Bohème’

Both the uninitiated and the inveterate opera fan will be impressed by the lovely singing of soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Sean Panikkar and by the antics of the quartet of bohemians that provide the Cincinnati Opera audience with as much humor as can be expected in an opera based on the novel “Vie de Bohème” by French writer Henri Murger.

In “La Bohème” there are neither bad guys nor hard-hearted gals, just plenty of passion and heartbreak in 1840s Paris, and Puccini’s librettists Illica and Giacosa deliver a now feel happy/now feel sad libretto tailor-made for Puccini’s music.

The story is straightforward: Rodolfo, a struggling writer (Panikkar) and Mimì, a seamstress (Cabell), encounter each other in an unheated attic after Alcindoro, the landlord (baritone Marco Nisticò) has cut off the electricity until he gets paid for the monthly rent of the rundown quarters shared by Rodolfo and his friend Marcello, a painter (Rodion Pogossov).

Tentatively at first, and then impulsively, Mimì and Rodolfo swear to love each other.

It is Christmas Eve, and Marcello, Schaunard (Edward Nelson), a musician, and Colline (Nathan Stark), a philosopher have gone down to the Café Momus. The two lovers soon join them, but the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of Marcello’s ex, Musetta (Jessica Rivera) who makes a grand entrance in the arms of Alcindoro (Marco Nisticò), her sugar daddy du jour.

After the fun and games of Act I are over, the action takes us to winter, a year later. Mimì and Rodolfo have parted company because of her flirtatiousness (says he) and his jealousy (says she). The real reason is that she is wasting away due to an unnamed disease and Rodolfo is terrified to lose her.

While Marcello and Musetta hurl insults at each other, Mimì and Rodolfo vow to stay together until spring comes. But spring comes and they again break up, and it is only at the end of the opera that Mimì returns to die in the arms of Rodolfo.

The production – the same one seen here in Cincinnati a few years ago – has a set that evokes a black-and-white movie of Paris in the 1930s, a backdrop for the mostly black and gray costumes of both chorus and principals.

An unabashedly romantic opera that premiered in 1896, originally conceived to be set in the 1840s Paris of Murger’s novel, could be an uncomfortable fit into the Paris of the 1930s, but as conceived by Jonathan Miller, this production’s original director, the concept works.

Natascha Metherell does a splendid job of directing her principals and chorus on a two-tiered set where space is at a premium. She makes things work while keeping everyone on stage away from any kind of operatic posturing.

Making his Cincinnati Opera debut, CSO Music Director Louis Langrée elicited terrific playing from his musicians, but many ragged moments in which coordination and balance between pit and stage were at loggerheads kept the evening from what could have been a great performance.

The choral passages, however, were perfectly sung by Henri Venanzi’s choristers, including the children in the Café Momus scene.

Cabell sang and acted an impassioned Mimì, her big lyric soprano voice soaring when soaring was needed, most notably in her second-act encounters with Marcello and in the ensuing farewell aria and duet with Rodolfo.

Panikkar was the perfect Rodolfo: good to look at, sincere in his acting, and rock solid vocally in his big solo moments.

Pogossov and his fellow bohemians, Rivera, Nelson – one of the best Schaunards I have ever seen – and Nathan Stark were a terrific quartet of bohemians.

The Cincinnati Opera’s “La Bohème” is a joint effort between our opera company, now in its 97th season, and the English National Opera. Puccini’s opera is on stage at the Aronoff Center for the Arts June 17, 22 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.

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