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The Arts
February 15-21, 2006

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La Boheme

Photograph by Pat Kirk
Passion's Pairing: Adam Flowers and Lori Decter in Opera San José's new production of Puccini.

Born to Act

Opera San José's stars filled the stage with high drama and emotion for 'La bohème'

By Scott MacClelland

OPERA SAN JOSÉ exists to give its already-professional singers stage experience, an invaluable benefit to the many talented young people who are brought into the program for a year or two to learn how to—in a word—act. For Opera San José's discerning audiences, success reveals itself from one production to the next, often in the space of a single season, for better or worse.

Of course, some actors seem born to the stage, just as some singers display a talent so natural that it all but hides technique. (And don't overlook the further irony to those opera superstars whose vocal acumen instantly blew past the stage critics, and those stage geniuses who conquered opera with una grande voccaza, "a great ugly voice," as Toscanini is said to have described Maria Callas.)

For Opera San José's new production of Puccini's La bohème, the Sunday matinee audience gave its loudest approbation to Joseph Wright as the painter Marcello and to Sandra Rubalcava as Musetta. (The show is double cast.) They deserved it. Both sang with great authority and house-filling presence and worked the stage like veterans—especially Rubalcava in her brightly colored Café Momus waltz scene.

Lori Decter's Mimi was especially affecting in her first-act "Mi chiamano Mimi" and second-act farewell to her quarrelsome lover Rodolfo. But her stage acting was often ambiguous and unfocused. Likewise Adam Flowers as Rodolfo, whose vocalizing also lacked consistency—too soft in moments calling for heft, too loud when intimacy was in order. Kirk Eichelberger sustained vivid vocal and stage presence as Schaunard.

In La bohème, Puccini worked his musical gifts with uncommon magic, skewing the narrative away from its darker aspects—the desperate circumstances of the women as against the carefree men of privilege pretending to be starving artists. One of Puccini's tricks is a subtle nostalgia that seems to inspire recollections of vaguely familiar memories, déjè vu style. Among the audience, it was possible to observe points of light reflected in eyes brimming with tears. Some of the opera's turns of phrase are recycled throughout, like Wagnerian leitmotifs, but others seemed to reach back further to touch some pre-opera regret.

Moreover, Puccini plays with music in this piece, almost to the point of send-up. In the last act, Colline sings farewell to his thread-bare coat before cashing it in for medicine for the dying Mimi. (Jesse Merlin was at his earnest best in the moment.) And Wright and Flowers join in an impromptu duet over their mutual frustrations with their girlfriends. Since there is no real drama to speak of here, musical comedy definitely sparks musical tragedy.

Kim Tolman's set designs gave the second act (Café Momus) and third act (the Paris city gate) a solid feel for space and context. The verticality of two-story buildings fit in excellent proportion to the horizontal stage areas. But the garret of Acts 1 and 4 displayed so many contradictory angles and vanishing points as to make one crave Dramamine for the unsettled stomach. David Rohrbaugh provided a secure foundation and his orchestra performed vivaciously.

La bohème, an Opera San José presentation, plays Feb. 16, 18 and 24 at 8pm and Feb. 19 and 26 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $65-$95. (408.437.4455)

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