By Giacomo Puccini
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Directed by Mark Lamos
Conducted by Steven Mercurio
At the Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco
(415) 864-3330

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The San Francisco Opera, faced with the need to vacate its home in the San Francisco Opera House this year, is capitalizing on the situation in a creative manner by presenting Puccini's evergreen "La Bohème" Broadway-style in the nearby Orpheum Theater.

The Opera House has been closed for remodeling and seismic upgrades since January. It will reopen for the start of the SFO's 75th season in September 1997.

In a fitting celebration of "La Bohème's" 100th anniversary, SFO is fielding multiple casts to present eight performances a week through June 30. Thanks to a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, ticket prices also are Broadway-style, ranging from $20 to $65, considerably less than the usual cost of an opera ticket.

In yet another bow to Broadway, SFO has hired Mark Lamos, who has numerous theatrical credits, as production director. Lamos and his design team - Michael Yergin, sets; Walter Mahoney, costumes; and Thomas J. Munn, lighting - have created a believable atmosphere for Puccini's band of impoverished Bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Hence the garret shared by Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard is dingy and cramped, almost too cramped when the four begin dancing in Act 4.

On the other hand, this small space, defined by photos of the building's exterior, allows Act 1 to flow almost seamlessly into Act 2 as the photographic panels lift or slide away to reveal the festive Cafe Momus setting. Act 3, the courtyard scene, is more conventional, using the full width of the stage.

The Orpheum, which has heretofore been used occasionally for the Best of Broadway series, proves relatively hospitable to opera. It's a pleasure to hear unmiked voices fill the house, unlike the overamplified voices one often hears at musicals here. To accommodate SFO's needs, the orchestra pit has been enlarged. Fresh paint is obvious in the lobbies and rest rooms.

Opening night, June 7, featured a cast of young singers who added further credence to the tragic story of young love ended by death. Soprano Patricia Racette was a touching, believable Mimi. Like more than two-thirds of her colleagues for this run of "Bohème," Racette is a graduate of the San Francisco Opera Center's training programs. Hence San Francisco audiences have had a chance to watch her and the others advance in their careers.

Racette, who also is becoming a regular at the Met, has always been a singer to watch. With her pure tones and right-on pitch, she shapes her performances with taste and intelligence. In the past her voice hasn't always been big enough to fill a house, but now it is showing greater power as well as richer undertones with no loss of purity or clarity. Consequently she delivered a sterling, utterly affecting performance.

Her Rodolfo was Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, last heard here in the 1994 "Lucia di Lammermoor." Giordani has an ardent, fluid style, but he sometimes lacks finesse, singing too loudly or making no apparent effort to blend in ensembles. Nevertheless, his performance was well-received.

Soprano Nicolle Foland, who was scheduled to sing the following night, stepped in on opening night to replace the indisposed Ann Panagulias as Musetta. (Panagulias reportedly sang her next scheduled performance.) Though her voice has yet to mature into its full power, Foland is a rising star who acquitted herself beautifully as the fiery coquette.

Earle Patriarco, though a bit stiff, sang the role of Marcello in a fluid, resonant baritone. Hector Vásquez as Schaunard and Philip Skinner as Colline made strong contributions.

The production was marred somewhat by Steven Mercurio's lackluster conducting, which resulted in a so-so orchestral performance and sometimes found the orchestra and singers out of synch. Likewise the SFO Chorus was good but not up to its usual high standards in Act 2. (Mercurio shares the podium with Marco Armiliato and Ian Robertson during the run.)

Overall, though, this was a noteworthy production, one that could bring new audiences to the world of opera.

For ticket information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:21 PST