La Bohème, Now With Real Bohemians

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The New York Sun

Over at the New York State Theater, it’s another season for “La Bohème” presented by New York City Opera, a little slice of Des Moines right here in Gotham. It isn’t often that a regional style of company can compete with the big, bad Metropolitan next door, but City Opera’s distinct advantage is its young, struggling, attractive cast. The Met often miscasts this perennial classic, either overwhelming it with a big-named but middle-aged soprano or tenor, or, at the very least, employing singers rather longer in the tooth than the characters as written would indicate. As the producers of “Rent” discovered, unknowns with lean and hungry looks are the keys to a successful run.

Besides, at the Met, nobody ever looks cold in that supposedly drafty flat.

Saturday night’s opening performance — there had been a preview at a reduced ticket rate — featured the best overall cast for this production in the past three years. New Jersey’s own James Valenti was superb as Rodolfo, possessing one of those tenor voices that instantaneously captivates and establishes its own importance. He was especially adept at developing a lyrical line and allowing his crescendos to form organically. There was one — but only one — split second of nasality in the midst of his biggest number, but, ultimately, his “Racconto di Rodolfo,” and especially his “Che gelida manina” leading up to an eloquent “Sono un poeta,” brought down the house.

The other men were also quite good, and proved surprisingly amusing as comedic players as well. Daniel Mobbs as Marcello could easily hold his own with Mr. Valenti, and added a rousing finish to the central set piece of Act II. Matthew Burns was a strong Colline with an enviably velvety subterranean range. And Brian Mulligan inched out the others as the best entertainer, combining solid timing, fluid movement, and excellent phrasing as an animated, and just slightly deranged Schaunard. His description of poisoning the parrot was sinfully delicious.

What melody in all of Puccini is as evocative as “Quando me’n vo’ soletta per la via”? Musetta’s waltz is an amazing combination of bittersweet nostalgia, triumphant celebration of oneself, and, if the performer is especially versatile, hilarious jocularity. For this performance, we were blessed with such a performer, the Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero. I wasn’t at all surprised that she was so expert, as she dazzled last season as a multidimensional Donna Elvira here at City Opera in an otherwise rather weak “Don Giovanni.” Here she was wonderful, with the aid of lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, stepping out of the frame entirely to spin her tale of gay loneliness. Standing with a bottle of champagne in her uplifted right hand á la Lady Liberty, Ms. Caballero was the epitome of the restless denizen of the Latin Quarter, her everevolving phrasing making the most of her star turn. When she then dumps that bottle over the head of the smitten Marcello, her voice changes, if only for a moment, to that of the heartless temptress. Lord Harewood once remarked that the genius of “Bohème” is that it laughs while it weeps.This savvy lady caught exactly that poignant mood.

But not all was peaches and cream, as the Mimi of Shu-Ying Li proved rather disappointing. Although her tones were well–rounded, they were often equivocal, lending a very flat ending to the love duet that begins with “O soave fancuilla.”

The production by James Robinson is one of the very best at City Opera, complete with stunning atmospheric effects and a brilliantly conceived premonition of death that chills the blood. The opera is a staple here and is the one to which I look forward year after year.

***

Paula Robison is quite simply a master of her instrument. New Yorkers know her as a flautist who fronts very successful Baroque programs, as a founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and as a champion of new music. For her presentation at Weill Recital Hall on Friday evening, she offered a sextet of pieces all of whose composers operated primarily in the 20th century.

She began with the Sonatine of Henri Dutilleux, a one-movement work that still follows a standard threemovement pattern. The opening section is woodsy and mysterious, typical of the sound we have come to associate with this composer.The middle section is contemplative and serene. The ending demonstrates a good deal of Gallic flair and joie de vivre. This accomplished artist showcased her strong technical skills and protean sense of mood. Her tone is brilliant, crystalline. The sound is not as reedy or burnished as that of some of her colleagues and tends to occupy only one corner of the flute’s spectrum of timbre, but is always limpid and in your face.

Michael Tilson Thomas is not only the de facto mayor of San Francisco but also an accomplished pianist, music educator, and composer. He would be an excellent choice to replace Lorin Maazel at the head of the New York Philharmonic, both for his musical versatility and his New York-friendly demographic niche, being both gay and openly Jewish. He wrote the charming Notturno for tonight’s recitalist and a small chamber ensemble. On Friday, the version for flute and piano received its world premiere performance.

The piece is a compendium of Italian songs, including the ubiquitous “funiculi, funicula.” The soloist seemed to revel in this unabashedly melodic undertaking wherein she intoned most like a singer on this particular evening. This anthropomorphic sound meshed nicely with the skills of her pianist, Metropolitan Opera accompanist Ken Noda, who played rather self-effacingly all night, but has the bad habit of stomping the floor very loudly while pedaling.

Recently in these pages, I briefly discussed the question of who is the most underrated composer. Bohuslav Martinu should be given some consideration, as this tuneful Czech always seems to be overlooked during surveys of the last century. Martinu wrote his Sonata No. 1 on Cape Cod, just after the end of the war allowed him to forever escape the clutches of the Nazis. It is a pantheistic and hopeful work, filled with birdsong, and this instrumentalist’s approach captures its optimism perfectly. Ms. Robison does occasionally linger too long, producing unwanted noise from the next breath, however, this is but a cavil.

Robert Schumann died 150 years ago and Toru Takemitsu 10 years ago, but neither has received much anniversary attention, what with the Mozart and Shostakovich birthdays. After intermission, our flautist performed both parts of the Japanese composer’s “Voice,” a duet for human voice and flute inspired by the Noh. Here her flute style was aptly percussive and shocking, her voice otherworldly in aping the ghostly imagery of the one line of repeated text. This was the best performance of the evening, a shatteringly neurasthenic personal statement.

Finally, she offered three of her own transcriptions of songs by Gabriel Faure, including the very famous Les Berceaux, and a knockout rendition of one of those glorious French anthems for flute, Cecile Chaminade’s Concertino. The songs were quite beautiful, with long, deliciously sustained lines, and the final piece was nothing short of a primer on flute technique. The crowd, decidedly friendly from the get-go, reciprocated with a prolonged standing ovation.

Here’s to you, Ms. Robison!

“La Bohème” through October 25 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).


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