Famous paintings provide backdrop for opera

The imagery of paintings mixes with the artistry on the stage. The play is at the Academy of Music, with a free taped performance Saturday at Independence Mall.
The imagery of paintings mixes with the artistry on the stage. The play is at the Academy of Music, with a free taped performance Saturday at Independence Mall.
Posted: October 03, 2012

Some perspective is warranted in Opera Company of Philadelphia's new production of Puccini's La Boheme before contemplating even a note of the music: By employing numerous masterpiece paintings from the time of the opera's composition in 1896, the production, which opened Friday at the Academy of Music, has prompted complicated reactions. Are the paintings, altered by digital wizardry, being ill-used?

Overall, the production - which will be shown free on Independence Mall on Saturday evening - is an absolute success, full of fine singing and acting and eye-filling stage direction in this romanticized slice of life of struggling artists in late 19th-century Paris. The paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and others arrive in various high-def forms on rear and side screens, sometimes moving and pulsating with digital animation, occasionally augmented with images added by the production team headed by producer/director Davide Livermore.

Intermission talk revealed some quiet indignation. Understandably, those who deeply love this art might resent seeing it manipulated. But if the integrity of the original was compromised, it was only momentary.

The Act III outdoor wintertime scene - where the opera's two couples confront each other about their romantic futures - is set against Monet's Morning Haze and had a bleak eloquence I've rarely seen conveyed by any scenic designer. However, only the painting's sky was seen (as opposed to the lake depicted lower on the canvas). Bare trees were added and a building materialized at one side - all Monet-ish. Can you make an ethical argument against something that works so well? I can't. We aren't talking mustaches on the Mona Lisa here.

The malleability of the meaning behind the images (find a list of them at http://www.operaphila.org/boheme-art) testified to the multidimensional qualities of the artwork. The Jean Beraud painting that dominated Act IV, showing a woman with her head buried in a sofa pillow, has Victorian sexual and moral implications in its title, After the Misdeed. But in the opera's staging, the painting was visually echoed by the staging as the opera's heroine expired from tuberculosis on a near-identical sofa in the same position. Here, the painting's function wasn't atmospheric as in the previous act's Monet, but its emblematic impact certainly amplified the music's dramatic impact.

As a stage director, though, Livermore was less conscientious. In the Act II Christmas street scene, he shamelessly tried outdo the Metropolitan Opera's ultra-spectacular 1981 Franco Zeffirelli production with a high-traffic staging that was mostly one empty effect after another. Street urchins stampeded in and out amid stilt walkers and fire breathers. A trio of ballerinas came and went - who knows why - and the toy vendor Parpignol did magic tricks without much magic. Lending greater dramatic motivation to such things isn't all that difficult.

Often, Livermore didn't know when to stop. Act I was busy, busy, busy. Mimi's Act IV death scene was handled with profound sensitively, truly capturing the feeling of being in a room with a dying loved one - until the final moment when the grief-stricken Rodolfo manhandles the poor girl's corpse.

Now for the good news: The cast looks and sounds terrific. Singing the role of the coquettish gold-digger Musetta, soprano Leah Partridge was ideal, her mid-weight lyric voice perfectly matched to the music, her classic good looks suiting the personality of a woman who knows she need only maintain her poise to be admired by one and all. Her boyfriend Marcello is sung by Troy Cook with the sort of baritone that could promise a great future in Verdi, though he was so physically restless at times that he distracted you from his own core talent.

You'd never want to be without Kevin Glavin in the comic cameos of Benoit and Alcindoro. Even if Jeremy Milner (Colline) wasn't a paragon of vocal accuracy in the so-called Coat Aria (sung before pawning it for medicine) his conviction told you everything you need to know about the music.

Academy of Vocal Arts grad Bryan Hymel   sang the leading tenor role of Rodolfo showing his high notes are easily among the best in the business. The rest of his voice is so attractive, and his presence so winning, you're worrying about the lack of spine in his middle register.

Norah Amsellem has a history of singing Mimi with verismo overkill, but here, vocal forcing was absent and nuances were everywhere. She and conductor Corrado Rovaris breathed as a single entity, musically lifting Mimi's set pieces onto a more exalted plane. Thus, Mimi had more poetry in her soul than the other characters combined, while Rovaris attended to the score's big picture and tiniest detail with first-class playing from the orchestra.


Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust. Tickets: $10-$225. www.operaphila.org or 215-893-1018. Information on free ticket registration for Saturday's videotaped performance on Independence Mall: www.operaphila.org/boheme .


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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