Soprano shines in Palm Beach Opera’s mixed “Boheme”

By Lawrence Budmen

Dmitri PIttas and Keri Alkema performed in Puccini's "La Boheme" Friday night at Palm Beach Opera.

Dimitri Pittas and Keri Alkema performed in Puccini’s “La Boheme” Friday night at Palm Beach Opera.

Palm Beach Opera opened its season Friday night with an opulent production of one of opera’s evergreens, Puccini’s La Bohème. Two exceptional female protagonists and a conductor who drew out the score’s orchestral felicities and mood shifts were not matched by the singers in the two major male roles.

As much as one could judge, that is, from a seat in the very last row of the main floor on the far left side of the Kravis Center. Well under the balcony overhang, the dull sound in that area and distant visual perspective made evaluating the performance problematic at best.

Based on collected stories by French writer Henri Murger, La Bohème is a tale of the joys and sorrows of bohemian life. Puccini imbued this story of a group of starving artists and their female lovers with an unerring sense of theatrical power and some of the most lyrical and passionate music ever penned for the operatic stage. Puccini’s orchestral palette is rich and colorful, echoing the Parisian ambience as well as the lovers’ sometimes difficult relationships.

With the excellent Palm Beach Opera Orchestra in top form, Daniele Callegari mined the subtleties of Puccini’s atmospheric instrumental writing, exhibiting a superb sense of pacing and dramatic tension. There was power and drama in the descending string line that announces Musetta’s entrance in the last act with the news that the heroine Mimi is weak and too fragile to walk the stairs and, throughout the opera’s four acts, the sumptuous wind and harp combinations were given special prominence.

Keri Alkema was an exceptional Mimi, always alive and reacting to the drama and comedy taking place around her. Her dark, slightly covered sound imbued “Si, Mi chiamano Mimi,” with poignancy, almost like a foretelling of the tragedy that is to come. While Mimi is often almost lost in the bustle of the second act Café Momus scene, Alkema made every one of her interjections count. In the third act as her lover Rodolfo describes Mimi’s consumptive illness and his fear that she his dying, her reaction was heartbreaking. She sang “Addio, Donde lieta usci” with simple directness to Callegari’s sumptuous string underpinning. Alkema’s lower register glowed in the death scene as the lovers recalled their first meeting. She brought wonderfully varied dynamics and vocal coloring to her last moments, the final line almost rendered in a whisper. Alkema is a potent singing actress.

As Musetta, Ellie Dehn made her entrance during the Christmas Eve revelry gowned and bejeweled like a Hollywood diva on Oscar night and she dominated all of her scenes, at once playful and volatile in temperament. With a clear, high light soprano, she floated “Quando m’en vo,” the famous waltz song, with breezy charm. Her high jinks as she feigned a foot injury were hilarious and her voice cut through the orchestra and choral forces with strength and secure technique.

Dimitri Pittas as the poet Rodolfo was less technically adept. Although his tenor timbre is attractive, too often his phrasing was coarse, lacking ardor. Pittas’ high range was edgy and he was clearly straining at the top, his pitch sagging on several soft high tones in the quartet that closes Act III. Pittas was at his best in duet with Alkema, their voices blending to beautiful effect. Pittas is an old fashioned stand-and-deliver singer, facing the conductor and audience much of the time. Only in Mimi’s death scene did he seem dramatically involved.

Luis Ledesma’s burly baritone is afflicted with a heavy vibrato but he was a personable Marcello bringing a welcome touch of humor to the painter and a good foil in the scenes with Dehn. Tobias Greenhalgh’s’s light-voiced Schaunard was merely adequate but Evan Boyer brought depth and gravitas to the philosopher Colline, his voluminous bass deep and eloquent in the coat aria “Vecchia zimarra.” Thomas Hammons was a scene stealer as the comedic landlord Benoit and the besieged dandy Alcindoro with the low bass notes strongly etched. Special kudos to Greg Ritchey for the full voiced, vibrant choral singing and bright, well balanced children’s chorus in the Cafè Momus scene.

Fenion Lamb, who directed a madcap Barber of Seville for Palm Beach Opera last season, brought spectacle without clutter to the Cafe Momus scene and staged the intimate moments sensitively, particularly elucidating how Musetta and Marcello’s playfulness could turn explosive. Lamb’s superb theatrical instincts shone in Mimi’s death scene on a darkened stage with a single spotlight on Alkema, holding the blackout until the final sad chords had sounded. Peter Dean Beck’s two-tier unit set effectively served as a garret with the lights of Paris coming in through a large window, the festive cafe and the gate to the city on a bitter, snow-drenched day.

Palm Beach Opera repeats La Bohème 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Elena Calenos and Anthony Kalil sing Mimi and Rodolfo in the Saturday performance.; 561-833-7888.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat Jan 17, 2015
at 12:58 pm
No Comments