Some things never go out of style: basic black, young love, “La Bohème.” Reputed to be the most often performed opera in the canon, Puccini’s tale of the consumptive seamstress, the impoverished poet and their high-spirited, if equally penniless, friends certainly will be the most often performed opera in San Francisco Opera’s fall-winter season this year, with a double-cast series of 13 stagings through Dec. 7. Consider it a simple case of supply and demand.
Audiences can’t seem to get enough of the frail Mimì and her Rodolfo — or maybe it’s Puccini’s lush romantic score that has them hooked. Either way, the work is a touchstone of verismo, the revolutionary late 19th-century practice of putting real-life people with real-life problems on stages usually trod by gods, goddesses and historic figures, pioneered by this composer as well as his colleagues Mascagni and Leoncavallo. People loved relating to the characters then, and they love it now.
And love is what it’s all about, especially when it occurs in a freezing Parisian garret between young people with enormous dreams and slender pocketbooks.
The second cast at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House does it proud, in spite of a few weak links. The singers are helped greatly by a new production, shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, with sets that lend themselves not only to split-second scene changes but also to the genteel slum setting of the tale, marred only by a very fake-looking snowfall in the third scene. Come on folks, tell the truth: weren’t you getting a little tired of that Zeffirelli extravaganza that’s been kicking around for years? The production designer is Tony-nominated (“Sunday in the Park With George”) David Farley.
The up-and-coming American soprano Leah Crocetto sang Mimì with Italian Giorgio Berrugi as her poetic lover. Berrugi has a sweet but rather slight tenor and, in the first act, it seemed as though Crocetto was holding back in order not to overpower him. Their rhapsodic love duet, “O soave fanciulla,” was kind of a mismatch. No such disparity however in the snowy scene when Crocetto unleashed that powerhouse of a voice for “Addio senza rancor.”
Good as she was, Crocetto was almost upstaged by Ellie Dehn as the pert flirt Musetta. Dehn is as good to look at as she is to hear, and Musetta came to the fore, at least for this critic, as never before, and not just in her famous “Waltz.” She was well-matched by the excellent Brian Mulligan as her quarrelsome but adoring lover, the painter Marcello. The two other “bohemians,” hunky Hadleigh Adams as the energetic Schaunard and the indispensable (he seems to be in everything this season) Christian Van Horn as the philosopher Colline, were a lot of fun. Van Horn’s mournful farewell to his beloved overcoat, which he sells to buy medicine for Mimì, was especially well-sung. Veteran Dale Travis did a fine job as Benoît the landlord and Musetta’s blustering sugar daddy, Alcindoro.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, was especially strong in the Christmas Eve street scene, crowded with vendors, military parades and a parcel of adorable children who sang like angels — or little devils when the toy seller trundled his truck across the stage. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi had the orchestra well in hand and director John Caird kept things moving at a brisk pace (this production is divided into two acts, instead of the usual three, clocking in at an astonishing two hours and 20 minutes), making the most of the comic byplay between the four male roommates as well as the tragic ending as Mimì dies of operatic consumption.
So let’s raise yet another glass to Puccini’s perennial bohemians. Long may they love.