Review: Dramatic, Theatrical and Cinematic: San Diego Opera is Back in Business with Brilliant “Boheme”

In March 2014, the Board of Directors of the San Diego Opera announced that the company would cease operations, just short of its 50th anniversary. The community uproar that greeted the pronouncement resulted in the resignation of much of the board, and its replacement by a new board dedicated to resolving the company’s financial issues and continuing to mount operas in the spirit of “the show must go on”.

I suspect that a routine performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” would have been greeted with relief and good cheer in San Diego, as proof that San Diegans can pull together when some community asset is threatened.

[Below: Rodolfo (Harold Meers, left) and Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, right) are reconciled; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Many in the community who had never before seen an opera would have, perhaps as a matter of civic pride, turned out for what is by many measures the most popular of all operas. Four performances were offered and two had already been sold out.

But it proved especially felicitous that not only did the company survive a near-death experience to produce a production of “Boheme”, they were able to secure one of the great productions of “Boheme” currently in existence to launch their 50th anniversary season.

[Below:Rodolfo (left, bottom of stairs) has rushed to the aid of the dying Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, bottom right), as Musetta (Sara Gartland, top of stairs) and the Bohemian men look on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Notes on the Physical Production

In 2009, British director Jonathan Miller, in close collaboration with British Set and Costume Designer Isabella Bywater, created a new production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” for London’s English National Opera and the Cincinnati Opera.

The production has proved be one of the London theater scene’s durable hits, having been revived several times at ENO’s venerable Coliseum.

[Below: the landlord Benoit (Scott Sikon, seated, second from right) who has come to collect rent for the Bohemians second floor flat, is plied with wine by Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie, left), Colline (Christian Van Horn, second from left), Rodolfo (Harold Meers, standing, center) and Marcello (Morgan Smith, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


As with Miller’s older staging of Puccini’s popular work, still frequently performed at the Opera National de Paris [for my review, see Opéra National de Paris: Très Magnifique La Boheme at the Bastille, October 21, 2005], Miller and Bywater moved the story from the time of France’s July Monarchy to the 1930s, when Pablo Picasso and artists of his generation might well have frequented the Bohemians’ Café Momus. It was Bywater who staged the San Diego performances of the production.

Changing the time to the 1930s allows the production to evoke a specific vision of what a Parisian “Bohemian” neighborhood would have felt like eight decades ago. Photographs from the 1930s were used, but those who spend time in the contemporary neighborhoods of central Paris should find much that seems familiar as well.

[Below: Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) is shocked to overhear a conversation that she is obviously dying from her illness; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.] 


The production is organized around two movable sets, each with three sides, so that stagehands (costumed as depression-era Parisians) move between the Bohemian men’s two room upper story flat (with staircase leading to the upper floor) to the second act Cafe Momus, and, after an intermission, to the third act tavern in which the painter Marcello is working, then back to the Bohemians’ flat.

Nothing about the production is casual. Every costume, be it for a principal cast member, adult or children’s chorister, “extra” or stagehand, is carefully conceived. Everyone on stage has learned what posture and gesture is appropriate to each moment their character is present in the mise-en-scène.

An operatic production that achieves such reality in the visual look of the actor-singers, sets, costumes, and staging, I refer to as cinematic.

Director Bywater obviously directed from the production’s original playbook, so that we are seeing a version of this show that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have taken to heart.

[Below: Splurging on a meal at the Cafe Momus are Marcello (Morgan Smith, at table, left), Rodolfo (Harold Meers, second from left), Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, center), Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie, second from right) and Colline (Christian Van Horn); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


A Meaningful Merger of Music and Drama 

Opera merges two performance styles – telling a story through singing and telling a story dramatic acting. Because operatic singing is in itself a special skill, as physically demanding as athletic endeavors, there have been times and places where opera companies have neglected or at least compromised on the requirement that opera singers be good actors as well as accomplished musicians.

No such compromises were made in the San Diego performances. The young lovers Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) and Rodolfo (Harold Meers) were visually and dramatically believable.

[Below: Rodolfo (Harold Meers, standing) has fallen for Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, seated); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Rodolfo’s impoverished, but resourceful, roommates Marcello (Morgan Smith), Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie) and the intellectual Colline (Christian Van Horn) showed abundant spirit in the lively high-jinx that composer, librettist and stage director had assigned them (including the hilarious pas de quatre parody on Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” that is one of the most famous sight–gags of this production.

The role of Rodolfo lies at the cusp of the lighter lyric and weightier spinto operatic repertories. Meers’ voice is on the lyric side, but this helped give his Rodolfo a sense of youthfulness, a young artist less experienced in affairs of the heart than some of his Bohemian brethren.

Casting singers that looked and acted their parts was not at the expense of the vocal performances. Alyson Cambridge has a large voice, that elegantly matched Morgan Smith’s sturdy baritone in the great third act duet between Marcello and Mimi and was affecting in Mimi’s fourth act death scene.

[Below: Marcello (Morgan Smith, right) and Musetta (Sara Garland, in red dress) fight as the reconciled Rodolfo (Harold Meers, left) and Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, second from left) hold hands; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Sara Gartland’s Musetta, brilliantly dashed off her waltz number – Quando men vo – probably the best known melody from the melody-rich opera.

[Below Musetta (Sara Garland, center, with upraised arm) seeks to gain the attention of her former lover, Marcello (Morgan Smith, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Christian Van Horn, who has become invaluable to American companies in a wide range of basso roles, delivered his eulogy to a favorite coat with dignity and eloquence that he will pawn to obtain medicine for the dying Mimi.

Malcolm MacKenzie, always dependable in the lyric baritone roles, was in fine voice as Schaunard, displaying the range of emotions that affect his character in the opera’s moments of joy and grief.

There are many other noteworthy details, such as Scott Sikon’s amusing appearances in the roles of the easily befuddled landlord Benoit and Musetta’s disrespected rich patron, Alcindoro. An eyecatching feature is costuming the toy-seller Parpignol as a Charlie Chaplin lookalike.

Karen Keltner conducted, in what she has announced is her final assignment with the San Diego Opera. Her association with the San Diego Opera over a 35 year period includes 150 performances of 40 operas, a record that no other conductor is likely to achieve.


I recommend this production and cast enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.