The Santa Fe Opera opened its 63rd season Friday night with a new production of Puccini’s La bohème on the stage, a new generation of seatback title screens in the audience and a new leadership troika at the company’s helm.
La bohème plays to the company’s traditional strengths, with its ensemble cast of young adults and a big chorus scene for the apprentices. The work is well sung and well played with standout performances by Vanessa Vasquez as Mimì and Zachary Nelson as Marcello.
Director Mary Birnbaum also makes use of a now-novel idea — setting it during the 1830s, the decade specified by its opera’s creators. (Baron Haussmann’s makeover of the city, with its now-familiar broad boulevards and romantic strolls along the Seine, didn’t begin until 1854.)
In Birnbaum’s vision, Paris is a medieval city, where streets are narrow and the fast-growing population is packed into cramped, fetid living quarters. Puccini renders the realities of the age through six bohemians living in the Latin Quarter: the writer Rodolfo, whose love affair with the seamstress Mimì is doomed by her tuberculosis; the painter Marcello and singer Musetta, who have an intense, on-and-off relationship; and the musician Schaunard and the philosopher Colline.
The director gives us a Mimì and a Musetta who are testing their strengths and taking more control of their lives than do the characters in more conventional portrayals. The fact that a creative class has to survive on piecework in a world of increasingly unequal concentrations of wealth — issues that are relevant today — is clearly drawn in this production. These innovations were extremely effective.
Others, though, did more to muddle the experience than create any new sparks of meaning. For instance, Act 4 ends with a puzzling touch of expressionism, a style not employed elsewhere in the production: The garret fractures into several distinct sections, leaving Mimì’s lifeless body in the foreground, apart from her mourning friends.
Conductor Jader Bignamini was aligned with Birnbaum’s clear-eyed approach, letting the drama and pathos of La bohème unfold organically. Many orchestral textures were evident, revealing a wealth of detail to remind listeners that Puccini was an inspired craftsman as well as a purveyor of emotion.
Unfortunately, some orchestral climaxes overbalanced the singers, an issue which can be addressed in future performances.
Soprano Vanessa Vasquez, a 2017 Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner who is making her Santa Fe Opera debut, was a superb Mimì, supplying lovely and stylish vocalism with enough edge to ride on top of orchestral climaxes, along with quiet notes that were beautifully free and confident. The Act 3 aria (“Donde lieta usci”), in which she tells Rodolfo she’s leaving him and asks to have her few possessions sent, was musical gold.
She’s also an actor whose transparency and sense of the moment invite us into her world and her thoughts, qualities that made her increasing desperation and ultimate death scene effective.
Her partner was tenor Mario Chang, Edgardo in the company’s 2017 Lucia di Lammermoor. He was an ardent Rodolfo, sporting a muscular tone without as much of a caressing quality as one might hope for and high notes that sometimes turned bland under pressure. But his Act 3 brought forth real pain and passion, as he poured out his heart, first to Marcello and then Mimì.
A cast change during rehearsals brought Gabriella Reyes to the role of Musetta (her company debut). A lyric soprano rather than the usually encountered spinto with a steelier voice, she built her portrayal on a sense of youthful joy at discovering her own powers and exploring potential paths in life. Her big Act 2 waltz aria (“Quando m’en vo”) may have lacked heft at the end, but her unaffected charm made it clear why Marcello can’t resist her. Zachary Nelson’s portrayal of the painter was excellently sung, energetically presented and attuned to events on a moment-to-moment basis. Musetta may have left him by Act 4 for a more comfortable and conformist life, but he won’t be alone for long.
As the musician Schaunard and the philosopher Colline, baritone Will Liverman and bass Soloman Howard were vocally strong and spirited performers, with their height differential enhancing their comic scenes. Howard’s farewell to his overcoat in Act 4 (“Vecchia zimarra”) was thoughtful and touching.
From the beginning, Santa Fe Opera fans have learned to expect production values that equal those attained by the musical performance. Grace Laubacher’s scenic designs capture the claustrophobia in the bohemians’ garret and Café Momus. The garret framework does ingenious triple duty, providing the cafe exterior in Act 2 and the framework for the Act 3 tavern. Stripping the garret’s furnishing down to bare essentials — packing crates for chairs and a pile of old mattresses for a sofa — reinforces the fact that these bohemians are enormously impacted by their poverty, not just inconvenienced by it.
Costume designer Camellia Koo effectively reinforced the directorial emphasis on the period’s growing wealth gap with upper-crust Christmas Eve strollers in Act 2 who were clad in a riot of pale pastels and the artistic class in saturated but muted tones derived from the pastels. No costume changes for Mimì, who’s too poor, or the gents in their mismatched and genuinely scruffy clothes. Only Musetta can afford new outfits, starting with an over-the-top red-spangled pantsuit that might do Liza Minelli proud.
The only major production misfire came when Anshuman Bhatia’s otherwise effective lighting hit the metallic scenery, sending flashes into the audience. It was distracting during moments of Act 2, and sadly, in Act 4, it lessened the finale’s emotional impact.
The much-touted new title screens feature high-resolution, full-color touchscreens; gone are the visually distracting on/off buttons from the first system, which was installed in 1999. The updated version (clunkily titled an “Electronic Libretto System”) was developed entirely by in-house personnel, and it functioned flawlessly on opening night, offering a sophisticated look for the English and Spanish translations.
The opera’s new leadership team should be pleased by their first production, which is well worth your attention.
If you go
What: Santa Fe Opera’s production of La bohème.
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, July 12 and July 19; 8 p.m. July 29, and Aug. 3, 7, 12, 17, 20, and 24
Where: Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive
Tickets: $15-$320; 505-986-5900, santafeopera.org