Connoisseur bravos replaced by honkin' horns and flashin' headlights? Puccini's La bohème staged in the Pechanga Arena parking lot? Such is opera performance in an age of COVID-19. A sold-out fleet of 450 cars contained opera-starved San Diegans who showed their appreciation of the performance in ways never imagined by the composer or previous casts. The intrepid automotive adventurers were rewarded with warm, sometimes thrilling voices thanks to the daring initiative that salvaged a production originally planned for the San Diego Civic Center stage. Quite a feat given the challenge of new outdoor staging and libretto revisions required for social distancing among the performers.
Director General David Bennett was rightly proud of the cast his company had signed to open the season at the civic center and unwilling to allow the virus to prevent its appearance, although there were two late personnel changes. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez replaced Angel Blue in the lead role of Mimì, and San Diego Symphony conductor Raphael Payare subbed for Italian conductor Valerio Galli. Blue withdrew for personal reasons. COVID-19 related travel restrictions made it impossible for Galli to make the needed trip.
Director Keturah Stickann overcame contagion challenges, which included a fifteen-foot separation between singers, by setting the production a decade after the original libretto ends. Rather than a garret, Rodolpho is in his study writing as he recalls his love affair with Mimì. The creative concept compresses the four-act opera to about ninety minutes, eliminates three minor singing roles and a few crowded scenes with soldiers, children or other extras. The revisions remove much of the second act's usual vibrant color and excitement, making the production something closer to undiluted tragedy, all the more poignant with the audience in cars to avoid a virus that can cause the same lack of breath that dooms Mimì.
I doubt that Blue, even though she has sung Mimì at the Metropolitan Opera, would have topped Martinez's dynamic control, or strong lush tone. Her touching realization of the intense melodic beauty of the aria 'Yes, they call me Mimì' produced chills of pleasure followed by a wildly incongruous cacophonous sounding of appreciative car horns. Another such noisy tribute followed the duet 'Oh lovely girl' for which tenor Joshua Guerrero joined Martinez to express the lead characters' first feelings of love. Guerrero has become a company favorite thanks to a warm pleasing voice and charismatic charm. He had a couple of minor wavering moments in an earlier aria but, fully warmed up, he teamed with Martinez to make a believable romantic couple, their voices meshing with the power and beauty Puccini's magnificent melodies deserve. Both were compelling throughout the three remaining acts as well.
Soprano Andrea Carroll was a seductive and playful Musetta. For the well-known 'Musetta's Waltz' she combined coy insouciance with splashes of power in another of the evening's highlights.
The other four cast members are baritone Alexander Birch Elliot as Marcello, bass Colin Ramsey as Colline, baritone Robert Mellon as Schaunard and bass baritone Scott Sikon as Alcindoro. The shortened libretto leaves Mellon and Sikon with little time in the spotlight, but all four gave consistently strong performances, combining masculine strength with good acting, from the light humor of the opening scene to the crushing pathos of the close.
Although Payare is best known as a conductor of symphonic music, previous operatic engagements have included La bohème with the Royal Swedish Opera, and the passion he so clearly feels for music when he conducts serves him well whether the composer is Beethoven or Puccini. The twenty-four members of the San Diego Symphony that comprised his orchestra on this occasion included ten principle players, and Payare provided the same precise and sympathetic support for singers that he demonstrates when accompanying concerto soloists.
But since the voices and orchestra were coming from a car radio and the singers wore microphones, sound designer Ross Goldman and his crew had far more control than usual over the sounds of both singers and orchestra. Singers were stage front, the orchestra never seeming in competition for attention while accompanying. The effect was similar to that of a well-engineered studio recording rather than a concert hall. As good as the sound engineering was however, 'live' opera voices over a car radio are unlikely to satisfy opera lovers once the novelty wears off. Nor is that the only reason to hope for a quick return to concert halls.
Distractions on opening night included occasional bright brake lights, people wandering by in search of Porta Potties, tall SUV's blocking some sightlines and, briefly, a quiet mysterious drone circling ominously overhead. Finally, I will be taking binoculars to future parking-lot concerts in case I wind up too far away from the stage and side screens.
Despite these caveats, the production was well worth seeing thanks to Puccini's genius, a creative director, and compelling performances by talented singers and musicians. Besides, it was the only game in town, however much you may share my hope for a quick return to shouted bravos and the thrill of unamplified voices that carry easily to the back row of the world's largest opera houses.
Copyright © 13 November 2020
San Diego, USA