Feb. 5 Syracuse Opera: La Bohème

Danielle Pastin (standing) and Casey Finnigan play the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in the 2016 Syracuse Opera production of Puccini's "La Bohème" (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Danielle Pastin (standing) and Casey Finnigan play the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in the 2016 Syracuse Opera production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Syracuse Opera presents a well staged but vocally unspectacular ‘La Bohème’

The set, save for some ineffective props, looks good  but the production lacks the necessary chemistry between Mimi and Rodolfo

By David Abrams

I’m not sure what caused the fire alarms to sound at the Crouse-Hinds Theater shortly before the final act of the Syracuse Opera production of La Bohème. But it was easy to rule out what little sparks had been flying between the two principal characters up to that point.

Puccini’s beloved opera, based on Henri Murger’s heart-rendering tale surrounding the doomed relationship between the poet Rodolfo and the tubercular seamstress Mimi, lives or dies on the strength of its exquisite singing and chemistry between the two lead roles. Friday’s opening night production — marked by largely unspectacular singing and weak synergy between the principals — was hardly enough to set the stage, or the audience, on fire.

There were, to be sure, some highpoints in the production led by Stage Director Benjamin Spierman, associate artistic director of the Bronx Opera who on this occasion was making his debut with Syracuse Opera.

No stranger to Puccini, Spierman — whose credits include the opulent Turandot — choreographed the busy street scene in front of the iconic Café Momus at the opening of Act Two with great visual appeal. Here, the busily populated chorus of colorfully attired adults and children sparkled like the image of Time Square on New Year’s Eve. Likewise, Spierman’s touches were apparent in the pervasive scenes with the four “Bohemian” roommates, whose constant fraternity-like horseplay and sight gags kept the audience engaged.

Other successes included the playing of the pit orchestra (all members of Symphoria), which navigated the always-busy musical score with unrelenting energetic drive and alacrity. But even here, Syracuse Opera’s use of an abbreviated orchestration pares down Puccini’s colorful score too much. With only two trumpets, for example, the brassy triads that move rapidly up and down the scale (scored for three trumpets) at the start of Act Two had to “borrow” a French Horn — which hardly produced the goosebumps Puccini had intended. Certainly, reductions of a composer’s orchestration are not uncommon in economy-minded productions by regional opera companies. Artistically speaking, however, skimping on Puccini’s instrumentations to save money comes at too high a price.

Danielle Pastin, as the fragile Mimi, did her best singing in Act Three. Here, her voice was stronger than in the first act, where her signature aria Mi chiamano Mimi and subsequent duet with her paramour Rodolfo (Casey Finnigan) never fully blossomed. But whatever lack of strength and delicacy of nuance had eluded her early on was nowhere to be found in this act. The soprano’s duet with Finnigan was truly moving, and her high notes appeared more secure and natural. When Pastin parted ways with Rodolfo at the end of the act and bid him a wistful Addio, I felt as if she at last had connected with the audience.

Like Pastin, Casey Finnigan as the poet Rodolfo failed to impress during the opening act but steadily gained vocal traction in the acts that followed. Finnigan’s first big aria (Che gelida manina) sounded restrained and somewhat timid, as if unsure whether conductor Christian Capocaccia would allow him the liberties of adding nuances and flexibility in the climactic high notes. Actually, such a fear would have proved well founded.

With his straightforward and evenly timed beats, Capocaccia appeared curiously unconcerned with offering Finnigan and Pastin sufficient leeway to expand their melodic lines during the sumptuous writing near the end of Act One. What should have been a pair of tender arias, with soaring lines free to peak and crest, came off as phrases plucked before having had sufficient time to blossom.

Returning to Finnigan, after a rather unspectacular first act the tenor improved significantly with respect to projection and level of confidence. His voice appeared most comfortable in the mid- to mid-high register — where his chest voice appears to find its comfort zone. Finnigan did take the “high C” in unison with Pastin at the very end of the first act as the pair walk offstage (though he didn’t chance enunciating the second syllable of the word Amour), but in general his voice seemed to shed its shield of comfort as it approached “high A.”

Both Finnigan and Pastin worked well in the ensemble numbers, such as the exquisite quartet at the conclusion of Act Three (Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina!). This humorous-touching number, where the constantly battling lovebirds Marcello (Dan Kempson) and Musetta (Meredith Lustig) quarrel in counterpoint to the newly reconciled Mimi and Rodolfo, proved to be the highlight of the evening.

As Marcello, Dan Kempson displayed what may arguably be the most consistently pleasing vocal timbre of the production, though his muted level of projection could not quite match the quality of his voice or acting abilities. The Grammy-nominated baritone cut a handsome figure onstage, making the fickle Musetta’s continuous attraction for the painter appear credible.

Meredith Lustig (right) as Musetta contemplates how to rid herself of her sugar daddy, Alcindoro (Peter Strummer) Danielle Pastin (standing) and Casey Finnigan play the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in the 2016 Syracuse Opera production of Puccini's "La Bohème." photo: Douglas Lee Wonders

Meredith Lustig (right) as Musetta contemplates how to rid herself of her sugar daddy, Alcindoro (Peter Strummer) Danielle Pastin (standing) and Casey Finnigan play the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in the 2016 Syracuse Opera production of Puccini’s “La Bohème.” photo: Douglas Lee Wonders

With her striking good looks and flirtacious demeanor, soprano Meredith Lustig fashioned the perfect femme fatale as Musetta. All eyes followed Lustig whenever she appeared, and her affected behavior at the Café Momus in the company of sugar daddy Alcindoro (Peter Strummer) added some nice comic touches. Because of her modest-size voice, however, Lustig’s vocal skills could not match the size and scope of her onstage character during her signature number, Musetta’s Waltz (Quando me’n vo’).

Besides Rodolfo and Marcello, the quartet of impoverished artists is rounded out by the philosopher Colline (Phillip Gay) and the musician Schnaunard (Dimitrie Lazich).

The roommates' hapless landlord Benoit (Peter Strummer, center) is surrounded by (from left:) Marcello (Dan Kempson), Schaunard (Dimitrie Lazich), Colline (Phillip Gay) and Rodolfo (Casey Finnigan); photo credit: Douglas Lee Wonders

The roommates’ hapless landlord Benoit (Peter Strummer, center) is surrounded by (from left:) Marcello (Dan Kempson), Schaunard (Dimitrie Lazich), Colline (Phillip Gay) and Rodolfo (Casey Finnigan); photo credit: Douglas Lee Wonders

Whatever chemistry may be lacking in this production between Rodolfo and Mimi is mitigated by the synergistic presence of this particular band of brothers. Under Spierman’s direction, the four staged some delightful scenes — from the ballet schtick in Act Four to the playful mock duel with swords between Schaunard and Colline. Beyond Kempson and Finnigan, however, the singing on the part of the roommates was not as impressive. Colline’s lugubrious fourth act aria, where bass-baritone Phillip Gay sings farewell to his beloved coat as he prepares to pawn it for medicine needed for Mimi, was vocally uninspiring and not well acted.

In the dual minor roles of the landlord Benoit and Musetta’s rich suitor Alcindoro, Peter Strummer delivered a pair of solid comedic basso buffo efforts, spreading chuckles throughout the theater.

The budget-minded set (director uncredited in the printed program) was well suited to the scope of the production, from the chilly interior of the roommates’ apartment in Paris to the splendid décor of the Café Momus restaurant. Not as much thought went into the props, apparently, with a heating stove in the apartment that looked no larger than a vase for flowers, and a pair of cheap battery-operated LCD “candles” that could easily have been replaced by ones that flicker.

Chorus Master Nancy James’s adult and childrens’ choruses sang with spirit and contagious enthusiasm during the Latin Quartet street scene in Act Two. Through my opera glasses I scrutinized the expressions on the faces of the children — who invariably looked eager and thrilled at the chance to participate in this production. Likewise, the adults acted exceptionally well in their capacity as “extras” at the Café Momus playing waiters, patrons and chess players.

I expect that the company’s repeat performance this Sunday of La Bohème will offer the singers a greater chance to shine, and perhaps capture more of the bond needed to bind to two lead characters into a dramatic whole. And if not, Puccini’s sumptuous musical score is sufficient to capture the moment on its own. 

Details Box:
What:  La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini
Who: Syracuse Opera
Language: sung in Italian with projected English titles
Where: Crouse Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, 2016
Remaining performances
: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions
Tickets: $25 to $206, call (315) 476-7372 or Syracuseopera.com

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