Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lyric Opera's Boheme boasts two strong leads and a set design that won't quit

By Paul Horsley
Photos: Doug Hamer / Lyric Opera

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of La Boheme, which opened September 13, has just enough goodies in it that I’d be loath not to recommend it. Hapless lovers Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) and Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) sang stylishly and with conviction, music director Ward Holmquist conducted with a sense of where he wanted to go, and non-interventionist stage director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer kept movement to a judicious simmer.

Yet the thing that dwelled in my mind as I drove home from the Lyric Theatre was the look of the show, especially the scenic design that felt almost like a principal "character" of the show. The production, which opened the Lyric's 2008-2009 season, runs through September 21.

Veteran designer R. Keith Brumley has created a handsome new set for the show, and its warmth, style and psycho-visual impact sometimes kept the eyes and the mind busier than the ears. The Parisian hovel of Acts 1 and 4, for example, featured outer walls that angled toward us, giving a claustrophobic feel accentuated by the outward thrust of the window. It enhanced the acoustic resonance for the singers, and at the same time it made us feel a bit of the characters’ desperation. Even the "gay" street of Act 2 seemed intentionally garish, to suggest that beneath all the glitz — and the willfully too-lavish costumes by Martin Pakledinaz — lay poverty and suffering.

This basic scenic structure was ingeniously transformed, with the addition of a gate-house and a protrusion for the tavern, into the wintry outdoor scene of Act 3. Here lighting designer Barry Steele, in his Lyric debut, created a glowing, dull-grey sky that made you feel chilly just looking at it.

If this sounds like the rambling of a jaded opera critic who’s seen so many Bohemes that he’s looking for something new, then I stand accused. Let’s face it: The story of La Boheme is so familiar that even theatergoers who’ve never seen the opera have probably seen the cheesy populist spinoff, Rent. So yes, we are desperate for fresh ideas and new spins. And yes, even I am uneasy about the fact that I often found the stage design more arresting than the music here.

Fortunately the Lyric scored well with the two young leads: There was enough romantic tension between them that by Act 3 we really did care about their fate. Cambridge and Fabiano brought off this Act 3 tear-jerker beautifully, and largely with vocal finesse: Cambridge has a nicely rounded soprano that can turn a heart-rending phrase on a dime, and expands into lovely bloom at the top. She is also a woman of striking good looks. Fabiano’s medium-sized tenor is sunny, secure and easy on the ear, despite an oddly labored top. As for the Act 4 finale, this young cast must have been doing something right: People all around me were bawling.

The first two acts were more problematical, as they usually are. I’ve sometimes thought that an ideal setting for the first half of Boheme would be a middle school, for only there do people fall in love in 15 minutes and grow jealous and possessive by the end of math class. Still, I’m not sure the decision to emphasize Mimi’s manipulative, conniving nature helped matters much: It made the hasty "I love you’s" seem vaguely fabricated. I’m no expert on women, but it seems to me that a girl without guile can more easily fall for a pretty tenor than one who has been around the block.

The rest of the cast was workable, though some of the larger vocal ensembles seemed unsettled, especially when the chorus was involved. (As it was opening night, some of the singer-versus-orchestra ensemble was in the tidying-up phase.) I admired Daniel Belcher’s solid, almost sinister onstage presence, which brought out that the hotheaded Marcello might in fact not be a very nice person. Vocally he had a hard time projecting over the orchestra, and his poofy blondish hair and ungainly, loose-fitting outfits made him a dead-ringer for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Katrina Thurman was a surprisingly serious Musetta who didn’t go over the top with flirtiness at the Café Momus. Jonathan Stinson brought dignity if not vocal brilliance to Schaunard, and Matthew Trevino’s dark, growly bass made Colline seem almost cuddly.

The production continues September 15, 17, 19 and 21 at the Lyric Theatre, 11th and Central. Tickets are $20-$85, with discounts for students and seniors. Call 816-471-7344 or go to