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OPERA REVIEW : 'La Boheme': No Stars but Some Pretty Pictures : The first production of the Music Center Opera season was overproduced and, perhaps, undersung.

September 11, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Music Center Opera opened its "all-star season" that's what the ads call it--on Thursday with a lavish new production of good old, fool-proof, tear-jerking "La Boheme." Puccini probably would have recognized it.

There wasn't a stellar name in the cast. Never mind. Placido Domingo did wield the baton in the pit (slowly and carefully), and a famous refugee from Hollywood--Herbert Ross--was credited with the apparently rigorous duties of stage direction (in official tandem with an "associate director," an "assistant director" and a "personal assistant").

The result wasn't exactly a blah "Boheme." But it wasn't the most poignant or the most incisive production in memory, either. And it certainly wasn't the simplest or the most intimate.

This was a "Boheme" populated, for the most part, by bright young American faces with bright young American voices--the sort we have come to expect from the New York City Opera or Santa Fe. It also was a busy "Boheme" seemingly populated by half of Gay-'90s Paris.

Most important, perhaps, it was a "Boheme" predicated on pretty pictures. Gerard Howland designed solidly extravagant sets that moved the action forward some 60 years, invoking Toulouse-Lautrec cliches and allowing a perky Eiffel Tower to grow on the cyclorama. With Peter J. Hall's slice-of-life costumes and Chris Parry's flexible lighting scheme, everything looked nice.

Ross, the novice regisseur, thought up lots of original, possibly cinematic, maneuvers to occupy the eye. He confined the central action of the first act to the Bohemians' garret, which, in this case, was a cut-out apartment within an oh-so-realistic, conveniently movable facade presumably modeled on the Bateau-Lavoir. The space was small and the locale all too distant, but the concept proved less destructive to the drama than its infamous Zeffirelli model at the Met.

Ross must have realized the danger of upstage alienation, for he refused to have his characters return to the isolated garret in the finale. Instead, he contrived to have Rodolfo and Marcello take their bikes and go fishing in the Seine for their duet reveries, and, in case anyone missed the point of their yearning, he brought on their loved ones in freeze poses behind a scrim.

Finally, the director assembled a silent chorus of fatuous neighbors, including the oddly ubiquitous Mme. Benoit, to abet the clumsy clown acts of the Bohemian bunch outside their awkward abode. Poor Mimi got to die her pretty death amid roses--ah, symbolism--on a rooftop garden chair.

At the beginning of the opera, Ross had the unfortunate heroine make a distracting, musically and dramatically premature entrance, climbing the rickety staircases that lead to her upstairs room. Then, after 10 minutes of rest, she entered Rodolfo's quarters and collapsed on cue, complaining that the stairs were so strenuous. Strange.

Ross did not tell us much about the characters, their deepest desires, pains and frustrations. He did tell us a great deal, however, about traffic at the Moulin Rouge (here pretending to be the Cafe Momus), about late-night haircuts on Christmas Eve, and about Model-T cars without motors that serve to transport soubrettes center-stage at waltz time.

None of the fussy little directorial innovations destroyed the basic impact of the opera. The essential verismo tradition was respected. The push-button ovations on Thursday (including one that interrupted the soprano's pianissimo C at the end of act one) suggested that the first-nighters liked what they saw.

Still, the changes did not represent improvements. Different isn't necessarily better. Puccini and his librettists knew what they were doing.

The musical values ranged from competent to slightly better than that. Domingo wallowed in sentimental gush and had some trouble precisely synchronizing voices with instruments. Nevertheless, he did exert more authority and passion than is usually the case when he swaps the tenorissimo's costume for the conductor's penguin suit. The expanded L.A. Chamber Orchestra followed his elemental beat with reasonable finesse, which is more than could be said for the ad-hoc chorus.

The most imposing, and best known, of the singers was Kallen Esperian--a rather robust Mimi blessed with a silvery soprano, an agreeable penchant for restraint and firm grasp of the pathetic idiom.

Craig Sirriani, remembered for his contribution to the Music Center's unforgettable "Lucia," partnered her as an ardent, bespectacled, anti-heroic Rodolfo. His slender, well-focused tenor occasionally turned blunt under pressure (like the gentleman in the pit, he chose a time-honored transposition to evade the high C in "Che gelida manina"), but he earned finesse points with some delicately shaded diminuendos.

Tatiana Odinokova, a soprano from the Ukraine via Israel, made her U.S. debut as a late, unexplained replacement for Catherine Naglestad as Musetta. Like many interpreters of the irresistible-coquette-with-a-heart-of-gold, she looked pertly glamorous, struck mock-seductive poses with gusto and sounded sweet here, edgy there.

The hard-working supporting ensemble included Jeffrey Black as an uncommonly assertive, macho Marcello and Richard Bernstein as an uncommonly youthful, lyrical Colline. John Atkins and Michael Gallup returned from the "Boheme" class of 1987, the former still sensitive as Schaunard, the latter still adroit in uncaricatured portraits of Benoit and Alcindoro.

The opera was sung, as usual, in Italian, but the mock-Lautrec posters on the scrim bore messages in French. The characters apparently spoke one language but read another. The super-titles, in any case, were in English.

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