"La Boheme" is regularly called the most popular of all operas, and it probably is, usurping the position held in the 20th century by Gounod's "Faust" and Bizet's "Carmen." The musical "Rent," based on Puccini's opera, has certainly broadened "Boheme's" appeal outside the opera sphere, and now the actual opera daringly heads to Broadway in a new Baz Luhrmann production.
One beneficiary of the recent "Boheme" publicity is undoubtedly Opera Pacific, which opened its season Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Apparently all it took was hanging out the "Boheme" shingle. Despite a no-name cast and a production imported from Canadian Opera, which couldn't promise Luhrmann-like visual allure, ticket demand was great enough for the company to add a sixth performance to the originally scheduled five.
Like "The Nutcracker," Rolling Stones tours and other performance perennials, it is hard to have an outright disaster with "Boheme." Audiences come preconditioned. Short of complete incompetence, the horseplay always gets laughs, the dying Mimi never fails to bring a tear to the eye.
And so it was Tuesday in Segerstrom Hall in a perfectly professional but otherwise unremarkable outing for Puccini's young Parisian artists. Opera Pacific has been the company that tries harder in the last couple of years, and although this "Boheme" offers none of the originality that the company has shown it can bring to opera production and performance, it has at least moved beyond the kind of overblown garishness of its previous attempt at "Boheme" 3 1/2 years ago.
Wolfram Skalicki's cartoonish sets, backed by a Van Gogh sky, look like a bad painting by Marcello, the bohemian painter in the opera. The earth-tone costumes by Robert Perdziola come from a different production, at Santa Fe Opera. Bernard Uzan's direction has just enough detail to keep the staging alive but not enough to make it fresh.
Misha Didyk is young and ardent, as a Rodolfo should be, but vocally that ardor comes in the form of pushing a smallish voice with a large wavering vibrato. Robin Follman makes an unusually forthright Mimi, so enthusiastic about her consumption that even her coughs seem to have determined vocal purpose. Though a strong, secure and silvery soprano, she too suffers from a wide vibrato that reinforced Didyk's in their duets. Add to that the persistent hearing-aid whistle coming from somewhere in the audience and there were times when it sounded as though some latter-day Parisian bohemian composer had touched up Puccini's score with 21st century spectral harmonies.
The effect wasn't necessarily unpleasant.
The other bohemians proved more generally satisfying. Displaying a powerful, focused, warm baritone, Frank Hernandez was the burly Marcello. Anita Johnson brought a welcome dignity and gorgeous high notes to Musetta. Kyle Ketelsen was the firm, moving Colline; Gregorio Gonzalez, the gregarious Schaunard.
Three seasons ago, Opera Pacific ran roughshod over "Boheme," the orchestra barely coping. Under music director John DeMain, Tuesday's playing was elegant. The chorus is still rough, but the children, as always, are a delight.
Where: Opera Pacific, Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tonight, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., with Rachel Cobb and Scott Piper replacing Robin Follman and Misha Didyk on Friday and Sunday
Contact: (800) 346-7372