Palm Beach Opera keeps it grand with a first-class, al fresco “Bohème”

By Lawrence Budmen

Latonia Moore stars as Mimi in Palm Beach Opera’s concert performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, conducted by David Stern. Photo: Bruce Bennett

As most American opera companies remain shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, South Florida’s opera-producing organizations are finding innovative ways to perform. 

Palm Beach Opera is thinking big, producing grand opera with major league singers at an alfresco venue with socially distanced seating. The company’s ten-day opera festival opened Friday night at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach with a concert version of Puccini’s evergreen La Bohème. Produced with minimal semi-staging by James Robinson, the production put Puccini’s music front and center and the singing was of a quality too rarely encountered in South Florida productions.

Inevitably there were the distractions associated with open air musical presentations—overhead planes, and noises from the surrounding streets and refreshment areas. Amplification was necessary in the large, partially covered venue. For the most part, it was skillfully managed, the voices ringing out without distortion. At first, the orchestra seemed slightly distant but, following intermission, the audio mix was adjusted to bring greater clarity and audibility to the instrumental lines. Above all, conductor David Stern and a first-rate cast did full justice to Puccini’s glorious melodies and endearing tale of tragic love in Bohemian Paris.

Latonia Moore was was a passionate, emotionally vulnerable Mimi. With a voice several sizes larger than many sopranos who sing the role, Moore’s creamy middle register and exquisite high range commanded attention from her first entrance. She powerfully conveyed Mimi’s desperation at her lover Rodolfo’s jealousy in her scene with Quinn Kelsey as Marcello. Moore’s nuanced vocalism of the heroine’s death scene was all the more potent for its understatement.

Michael Fabiano is Rodolfo in Palm Beach Opera’s La Boheme.
Photo: Bruce Bennett

There was vital chemistry between Moore and the Rodolfo of Michael Fabiano. Fabiano is the authentic article – a tenor with ring, squillo and intense projection. His high notes rang clear without any hint of strain or scooping. “Che gelida manina” vaulted through the house but his soft tones were honeyed and beautifully calibrated. When Moore and Fabiano’s voices blended in duet, their vocal gleam shone impressively.

Having Quinn Kelsey as Marcello and Isabel Leonard as Musetta was luxury casting. Kelsey is the current stalwart Verdi baritone for both the Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago. His large, voluminous voice registered strong impact but, in his scenes with Moore and Fabiano, he could bring the tone  down as needed. Kelsey demonstrated strong ensemble skills in the horseplay of the impoverished Bohemians in the garret.

As Musetta, Leonard was the evening’s scene stealer. Entering Café Momus act in a stunning sequined gown, she played the flirtatious coquette to the hilt. Singing a role usually done bynsopranos, the mezzo’s radiant waltz song was one of the evening’s highlights. In the final act, she turned grandly dramatic, singing Musetta’s narrative of Mimi’s declining health in grave tones.

There was not a weak link in the supporting cast. As Schaunard, Heeseung Chae was a real discovery. With a light, warmly colored baritone and outsized personality, Chae’s every utterance commanded attention. Ryan Speedo Green made Colline’s coat aria a highlight of the evening. His deep bass has power and reach with low notes that are firm and solidly articulated. Jake Gardner did double duty as the landlord Benoit and Musetta’s hapless suitor Alcindoro. The veteran baritone’s voice is still strong and he knows how to make every line count.

Stern drew out Puccini’s singing phrases adroitly, providing strong, coherent support for the singers. Without a curtain coming down to produce premature applause, it was great, for once, to hear the final soft harp lines following the Mimi-Rodolfo duet in Act I and the final quiet brass chords at the conclusion. Standing to the rear of the orchestra, the small chorus sang vigorously as holiday revelers at the Café Momus and workers awaiting to enter the city’s gates on a fridged morning.

With just a few tables and chairs (in front of the orchestra) and minimal costuming, Robinson managed to suggest the strong connections, loves and feuds between the protagonists. Close-ups of individual singers on a screen above the stage aided the dramatic tension.

With superior musical values and a skilled concert production, this Boheme was a great beginning for Palm Beach Opera’s courageous winter operatic feast. Operas by Mozart (The Magic Flute) and Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) are to come.

Palm Beach Opera repeats La Bohème 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way in West Palm Beach.

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Sat Feb 20, 2021
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