COSTA MESA — "La Boheme" is ever with us. This season alone, Puccini's cherished Parisian artists have frolicked, loved, bickered and expired in a cinematic garret on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, in a revival of L.A. Opera's Herbert Ross production. And their modern-day equivalents have been doing likewise in the East Village in "Rent," across the Music Center plaza at the Ahmanson.
Now it's Orange County's turn. Opera Pacific has begun the new year with a people's "Boheme." Or that is at least what it started out as.
The production by Mark Lamos was created for San Francisco Opera as an operatic experiment the summer before last, when the company ran it in a Broadway-style theater, the Orpheum, in Broadway style, namely night after night, and at Broadway prices. Three casts of promising, young, mainly American singers were recruited. It was a fresh, lively show that proved a huge success.
Opera Pacific is following San Francisco's example partially. It has two casts with six performances this week. But people's opera this certainly was not Tuesday night. Ticket prices remained princely and first-nighters dressed. Michael Yeargan's set made for a more intimate house no longer filled the stage of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Lamos was nowhere mentioned in the program, the production now credited to Sandra Bernhard, an assistant director of San Francisco Opera, not the comedian.
More than that, Opera Pacific had grand opera in mind. Voices, conducting, acting all were also in the grand category. That is to say, this is no longer an intimate, touching, plausible "Boheme" but a belted, melodramatic one, bursting at its seams.
It was also, Tuesday night, touch and go. Opera Pacific has been in the news lately for the upheaval backstage, with the sudden resignations of key management, including that of its general director, Patrick L. Veitch. The company is now without a director.
How much that affects the performances on stage is hard to say. But nerves were not steady, and ensembles were unsteady. There was an uncommon number of stumbles and dropped objects. The orchestra, under Christian Badea, sounded pushed to its under-rehearsed limits. Singers seemed to be following orders, not acting. Many small theatrical details that had made the original Lamos production distinctive, such as delightfully snotty waiters at the Cafe Momus, no longer register.
Maybe those details weren't the point. Instead, it was an evening for big singing and big gestures. Badea appears to be a conductor with a mission: to play fast music faster than Toscanini, to play slow music slower than Bernstein. The gestures are self-conscious and, given his forces, daredevil, but they do hold one's interest.
Mainly what the first-night cast of this "Boheme" had to offer was big voices. Mimi's vulnerability may pull at the heartstrings, but Romanian soprano Leontina Vaduva is in it for the thrills. Although she was one of the sopranos in the original San Francisco production, she was not the most touching. She has a hard, steely, vigorous sound that rises to climaxes with unmistakable elan. Even her coughs project. She dies the sudden death of the healthy.
Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, the Rodolfo, showed little hesitation in matching Vaduva, melodramatic outburst for melodramatic outburst. He, too, enjoys the grand manner, and it seems to work in his quickly rising international career. So maybe it was the wildness of Badea and the egging on of Vaduva that made one wish he could slightly better control pitch.
Against a vocally oversized Rodolfo and Mimi, the other Bohemians--Christopher Schaldenbrand (Marcello), Luis Ledesma (Schaunard) and Alvy Powell (Colline)--played more to bland convention and appeared to be more backup ensemble than individual characters. The exception was Robin Follman. Less temperamental, less flamboyant than most Musettas, she nevertheless displayed an unflappable vocal security that help ground the entire performance. A director with ideas could do something with her.
So could a costume designer. Instead of the original costumes from San Francisco, Opera Pacific went to Seattle Opera for duller ones by Martin Pakledinaz, in this pick-and-choose production.
* "La Boheme" continues with alternating casts, tonight at 7:30; Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, $28-$93, (800) 740-2000.