In last weekend's production of Puccini's La Boheme, Opera in the Heights performers reminded audiences of one truism, easily forgotten since the advent of the Three Tenors and Jessye Norman's televised Christmas concerts. It's hard to surpass opera as it was meant to be experienced: live, on an intimate stage, with popcorn and champagne flowing, and tiny children peering through the rungs of the upper balcony.
La Boheme is a thinly plotted, richly poetic story of bohemians who live for the pleasures of art and love while suffering many chilly nights in the drafty attic they call home. Still considered Puccini's most popular work, it's the first one he wrote for the working people. Led by former Metropolitan Opera conductor and voice coach William Weibel, Opera in the Heights players stuck to a tried and true, realistic staging that skillfully evokes the hard times of struggling artists in Paris's Latin Quarter of 1830. Except for the balcony seating that offers an obstructed view of the stage, the troupe's show at Lambert Performing and Visual Arts Center left newcomers feeling that maybe the show and the players were a little too good for this modest hall surrounded by Victorian homes.
The first thing that strikes anyone who's never heard these singers is the professional quality of their voices. The principals who play Rodolfo and Marcello, the poet and painter who seek the warmth of women to keep from freezing in the garret, show their technical prowess in highly demanding solos and ensembles. As Rodolfo, Dallas Bono's tenor has a luscious intensity and gliding range. When his lover Mimi loses her key in his room, his singing of "Che Gelida Manina (What a Cold Hand)" perfectly captures the dreamy sentimental nuance that makes this opera such a huge favorite.
As the painter Marcello, the Venezuelan-trained Arturo Rodriguez is the show's most versatile performer. His baritone is resonant with subtle variations in tone and volume. His facial features reveal an adept insight into his character's suffering and empathy. He struggles as an artist, of course, but he's also pestered by the noisy Musetta, a woman who is difficult for him to love. He also comes off as a believable counselor to the quarreling Rodolfo and Mimi when they come to him for advice. Marcello's lively bickering with Musetta over loud chorus accompaniment is one of the high points.
Kelli Estes plays a gorgeous, sizzling Musetta whose stunning dramatic appeal is not always matched by strong vocal projection. Still, she creates a breathtaking spectacle during the famous "Musetta's Waltz," relentlessly pleading with her old flame to notice her again. Lithe and seductive in her fuchsia gown, Estes is a head-turner. She does Musetta's strutting and flirting to perfection. She is also to be commended for singing such a pivotal role four nights in a row after alternate Renee Rivera became ill.
Eric Peabody's bass rendering of the philosopher Colline is rich and captivating in moments, but he comes alive in the last act when he pawns his coat to help get Mimi a doctor. As the musician Schaunard, Rod Arndt has great comic timing and a sturdy baritone. California native Omari Tau Williams should take lots of credit in his dual role as the lusty, married Benoit and Musetta's sugar daddy, Alcindoro. The two roles were disparate enough to be demanding for any actor. He pulled them off with a delightful sense of comedy that was never exaggerated.
Shepherd School graduate Hyangsuk Shin is building a rich soprano repertoire with her impeccable performance as the dying Mimi who is too poor to get treatment for her consumption. Last season she starred in the Heights production of Madame Butterfly. You wouldn't know from looking at the Korean native's slight frame that her gift for florid singing could be so powerful. Although she struggles off stage to perfect her English, on stage she has conquered the lyrical difficulties of Puccini's melodies.
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Most impressive on stage was the cast's facile handling of scenes that played humor against pathos. A marvelous example comes in Act Two when Musetta's and Marcello's lyrical squabbling is ironically juxtaposed against the sentimental pledges of love exchanged by Rodolfo and Mimi.
Elizabeth St. Clair's deft managing of the chorus was evident, especially in Act Two before Musetta makes her grand entrance. At the start of Act Three, aided by Keele's clever stage directing, a few in the chorus made their entrances from all four corners of the tiny auditorium. At times their lilting from all directions created a pleasant stereo effect. Touches like these seem to be carried off with ease.
Under the coaching of Weibel and Keele, Heights has a principal cast that feels it is destined for great things. Some members are just getting started. Others have performed widely outside Texas and the United States. Shin expects her experience with the company to jump-start the singing career she's wanted since childhood. Performing with Heights is a little different from being at Rice.
Keele feels the current production was charmed right from the start. Possibly because of Weibel. Or maybe because of the story itself and its focus on artists getting by in Paris who sacrifice their health and stable livelihoods for the riskier pursuits of art. Keele is struck by the parallel between Puccini's art and the lifestyle of some Heights players. "Here you have some singers that are young people studying for art, waiting for the break. [In La Boheme] it's almost like they're playing themselves.