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Madison Opera: Puccini's "La Boheme"

Puccini: La Bohème

Mimi: Paula Delligatti, soprano
Rodolpho: Scott Piper, tenor
Musetta: Tracy Watson, soprano
Marcello: Brian Montgomery, baritone
Schaunard: Lorenzo Formosa, baritone
Colline: Kyle Ketelsen, bass
Benoit, Alcindoro: Donald Hartmann, bass
Madison Symphony Orchestra
John DeMain, conductor


The Madison Opera's production of Puccini's La Bohème was a triumph worthy of any world culture center, thanks to amazing young singers, fine acting, wonderfully subtle stage direction, inspired orchestral playing and out-and-out lyrical genius on the podium. Two jammed-packed houses of attentive and engaged listeners certainly helped. Of course, it's all made possible by the composer's masterful musical realization of a very good story.

Four poor but high-spirited friends share a garret in 1830's Paris: the poet Rodolfo (tenor Scott Piper), the painter Marcello (baritone Brian Montgomery), the philosopher Colline (bass Kyle Ketelsen) and the musician Schaunard (baritone Lorenzo Formosa). Rodolfo soon meets and falls in love with the frail, consumptive flower girl Mimi (soprano Paula Delligatti). Following a third-act separation from Rodolfo on account of their quarrels over his jealousy, Mimi returns in the last act to the garret, scene of her first happiness, and succumbs to her illness in the opera's closing moments. Bohème is a two-hankie opera, I think; one for the overwhelmingly affecting music, another for the tragic ending.

Marcello too has love troubles, captivated by the free-spirited Musetta (soprano Tracy Watson), who has many admirers including the somewhat addled Alcindoro (bass Donald Hartmann). Together with the natural ebullience of the four young men, the tempestuous Musetta/Marcello affair and the bustle of Parisian street life leaven the story with good humor and comic relief, preventing the central romance between Mimi and Rodolfo from becoming too cloying and sentimental.

Hartmann is one of the best operatic character actors anywhere. As the landlord Benoit in the first act and as Alcindoro in the second, he played the comedy with style and with first-rate singing. The opera chorus served beautifully in the second-act street scene that provides a frame for Musetta's famous waltz aria. Watson's Musetta was somewhat stiff and restricted, with more emphasis on rebellion than on guile. Though her voice is bright and clear, the role needs much more warmth, charm and suppleness.

In the role of Schaunard, Formosa's voice was pleasant though not large, but he offset that very nicely with sensitive acting. As the most introspective of the four friends, Colline is seldom memorable, but Ketelsen's huge, richly sonorous voice was impressive indeed, coupled with excellent acting. He is surely destined for a great career. As Marcello, Montgomery's acting was fine, but he could benefit vocally from a brighter sound and a greater dynamic range.

Comparison with earlier famous singers is inevitable in the cases of Mimi and Rodolfo. Delligatti's Mimi was beyond affecting. She's a consummate actor, combining sweetness and vulnerability with wise acceptance of her fate. It's a lot to say, but vocally she reminded me again and again of Maria Callas' best days: clean, strong sound with a dramatic edge that highlights the emotional context.

I'm convinced that Piper is headed straight for superstar status. He brought real-life passion and deep emotion to his Rodolfo. His voice is strong, open, and intensely lyrical; in each of the three roles I've heard him do, he was improved technically as both a singer and an actor. The elements of unfolding greatness are now in place, moving him toward combining the majestic power of Luciano Pavarotti with the aching beauty of Placido Domingo.

Lorna Haywood's direction was superb. Countless small touches uncovered every shading, whether in the great set pieces or in the complex ensembles. She kept the comedy from becoming too raucous while at the same time revealing the full content of the dramatic text and the emotional subtext, a daunting task masterfully achieved.

Puccini holds singers aloft on a sea of luscious sound, but that can only work when the conductor shapes and balances the orchestra perfectly. And that's what John DeMain did here, lyrically supporting and sustaining every nuance of thought, breath and feeling in the singers above him on stage, achieving an uncanny oneness with the music. It was as though I were hearing this opera for the first time, a revelation in profound depth and soaring altitude. It was, quite frankly, stunning.

Isthmus, November, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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