Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

San Francisco Opera Performance of Puccini's La Boheme, Directed by Nicola Luisotti

Review of the November 16, 2008 performance published in papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

Grand Opera doesn't get much grander than it did in the San Francisco Opera's 214th main-stage performance of Puccini's La Boheme at the War Memorial Opera House last Sunday afternoon. It was like one of the world's most beautiful buildings: every element was wrought into a perfectly balanced, luminous whole.

The "master builder" in charge of this superlative local realization of Puccini's masterwork was the San Francisco Opera's music director designate, Nicola Luisotti, who, like the composer, was born in Lucca, Italy.

Working under Luisotti's inspired leadership were a host of dedicated artists, musicians, and craftsmen and women who melded the production into what most in the audience and on the stage agreed was the best La Boheme they had ever experienced.

Maestro Luisotti launched into the first act with markedly energetic, buoyant tempos which he varied to mate precisely to the lively onstage banter going on among the four young Bohemian artists rooming together in the little garret high up among the rooftops of Paris. His impact throughout the pathos and passions of the opera was irresistibly powerful and charismatic. His expansive arm movements seemed to extend right onto the stage-- and every time I caught a glance of his face, he appeared to be mouthing the music and emoting right along with the individual singers.

Even tenor Piotr Beczala's exclamatory response to my post-opera query about his thoughts on the production's magic, was, "It was Luisotti! We were so lucky to have him. If there is a single person who is saving opera, it is Luisotti!"

The casting indeed rivaled the best of Hollywood, Broadway or any other world stage. Gorgeous golden-voiced Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu imbued the role of heroine Mimi with a tenderly touching believability, while the Polish Beczala created the handsomest, most ardent, poet Rudolfo in years. His clarion but well-modulated high Cs and B-flats, athletic physical presence, and sensitive musicality coupled beautifully with Gheorghiu's artistic virtues.

Merola alumnus Quinn Kelsey of Hawaii charmed everyone with the expansive warmth of his beautiful baritone in his convivial characterization of Marcello the painter. Bass Oren Gradus, former Merola member, was a thoroughly engaging philosopher Colline and baritone Brian Leerhuber, a sensitively exuberant musician, Shaunard.

Musetta was saucily and willfully portrayed by French soprano Norah Amsellem and the masterful singer/actor Dale Travis, also a Merola graduate, was by turns giddily lecherous as the boys' landlord Benoit and pompously aristocratic as Musetta's elderly escort, Alcindoro.

Ian Robertson's splendidly trained chorus of adults and children created a nostalgically warming holiday tableau of celebrating Parisian students, townspeople, shopkeepers, vendors, soldiers, waiters, and more.

Sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan and Walter Mahoney respectively; beautifully choreographed and paced stage direction by Harry Silverstein; luminous Christmas holiday lighting by Duane Schuler, and a contagious can-do spirit created the solid, yet artfully animated foundation for the whole, unforgettable production.

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