Daniella Carvalho and David Guzman as Mimi and Rodolfo
By JOHN DeMERS
It is a shame that, even after adding two performances, Opera in the Heights can’t locate so much as a single empty seat to its production of Puccini’s La Boheme. Since OH’s Lambert Hall used to be a church, maybe they should create a “cry room” (how appropriate!), at $12 per folding chair. It’s a shame because this might be the finest version of anything that Houston’s small “stars of tomorrow” company has ever done.
Of course it’s a sellout, you might say. La Boheme, as OH artistic director William Weibel and many other experts have pointed out, is the perfect starter opera. It’s brief, it’s intense, it’s gorgeous to listen to and it’s affecting to watch. I should know, since it was my starter opera. I’ve suffered through almost numberless (and long) evenings of stupid plots, shallow characters and unmemorable music after being suckered in by La Boheme. Yet what I’m saying about the success of this production has little or nothing to do with all that. The two stars this time out are not even the singing actors who play Rodolfo and Mimi, but Weibel himself and masterful stage director Brian Byrnes.
There’s something life-changing about hearing Weibel carefully, lovingly conduct and his small, efficient OH orchestra perform an oh-so-familiar score. As when you listen to a remix of a Beatles classic, there’s suddenly a tambourine you never heard before, suddenly an unexpected flourish of strings. If Weibel doesn’t love Puccini’s music to distraction, he’s the greatest actor of all time. And the process is helped along by the hall’s impressive acoustics. This intimate music, like the intimate story is conveys, make the perfect expression of what OH is all about.
For his part, Brynes is best known for staging every decent fight sequence on any stage within about 150 miles, as well as for being a theater professor at U of H. He directs La Boheme as though he’s never heard the story before, as though he’s never heard of the story. Things often treated as familiar and tired are lived anew, fresh and quirky and real. In particular (quite sensitively for a stage director), he embraces the miniscule accents in Puccini’s score and always gives an actor something to do to the music. Few directing their 17th Boheme, or seeing their 1,246th, would even bother. There are dozens of moments that surprise and delight, which surely is exactly what Puccini had in mind.
Charles Stanton as Marcello
Brynes and his helpers (including the talented Clinton Hopper, late of NOVA Arts), also dive in and fix what’s typically “wrong” with an OH opera – namely, the set and costumes. This Boheme set sidesteps the usually heavy-wood-covered-in-paint that forever links any production to high school theater, preferring a lighter, more contemporary and more versatile apparatus made of frames and see-through screens. Watching the familiar Parisian garret morph into Café Momus on Christmas Eve is by itself worth the price of a ticket. We hope Byrnes has found a regular gig as a director for OH. His flair for theater is needed here, to let the voices do what voices do best.
The so-called Emerald Cast (alternating leads belong to the Ruby Cast) gives off the appropriate amount of youth, poverty, playfulness and sarcasm, mixed with some lush singing of some of opera’s lushest melodies. David Guzman and Daniella Carvalho make splendid work of Act I’s bookended greatest hits, “Che gelida manina” and “Mi chiamano Mimi,” and then are powerful and entirely believable as doomed lovers the rest of the night. If you wanted to miss a lot, you could spend an entire pleasurable evening watching what Carvalho does with her hands. They must be borrowed from a ballerina.
Charles Stanton makes an incredibly likable Marcello, and actually finds an endearing comic fluster over Musetta’s infidelities that I’ve never seen before. And Alyssa Bowlby, who wowed us some time back as Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, hits Act II’s humfest known as “Musetta’s Waltz” (“Quando men vo”) right out of the park. Filling out the four main bohemians, Keir Murray shines as Schaunard, as does Nathan Resika as Colline. The latter’s farewell to his beloved overcoat near the end, “Vecchia zimarra,” is an understated scene-stealing delight.
The OH chorus does its usual impressive singing, with at long last a stage director who gives them something to do. The fact that last night this almost invariably involved moving up and down the aisle past my left shoulder didn’t detract in the slightest.
Alyssa Bowlby as Musetta