Will Liverman

‘La Boheme’ review: small favors

In Portland Opera's insufficiently intimate production of the Puccini perennial, the lightest parts are the strongest


Sometimes it’s the little things that count. Portland Opera’s current production of Giacomo Puccini’s warhorse La Bohème survives because the two merely adequate main characters are supplemented by lively, well-sung performances by their supporting cast.

Portland Opera’s 2017 ‘ La Bohème.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Mimi, the doomed seamstress and heroine, is impersonated by soprano Vanessa Isiguen, a Portland singer making her local opera debut. She has a nice, not huge voice and delivers the notes of Puccini’s score faithfully, but her Mimi is never the forlorn and waifish vessel the opera calls for. From beginning to tragic end, she looks and sounds positively plump and happy rather than emaciated by tuberculosis and disheartened. The makeup team at Portland Opera shares some of the blame here. Still, whatever the words before her, Ms. Isiguen sings but does not act while singing.

Her other half, Rodolfo, also shows emotion chiefly when not singing. Rome-born tenor Giordano Lucá demonstrates a radiant smile, but, alone among the cast, while singing keeps his eyes fixed on conductor George Manahan. One might expect a man who has sung this role in at least six European houses to loosen up a little and at least gaze at his beloved while singing to her, instead of staring over her shoulder at the orchestra pit. His voice, a lyric instrument, is right for Rodolfo, but Mr. Lucá tries to make the part a true spinto role by pushing into a Heldentenor’s voice production. This causes strain in the top notes and never sounds comfortable.

Jennifer Forni excels in ‘Boheme.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Jennifer Forni’s performance as the charming, coquettish and sluttish Musetta helps a great deal. This lively soprano has previously appeared in two Portland Opera productions, and her depiction of over-the-top flirtatiousness is just right here, as is her sharp, bright voice. The whole production lights up when the focus is on her and her sometime boyfriend Marcello, very well acted and sung by Will Liverman, making his Portland Opera stage debut.

In fact, the lightest parts of this production are the strongest; it’s nice to remember that Puccini had a good ironic sense of humor to go with his sentimental romanticism. In this sense, the practical and jaded Musetta — with her charming waltz, nicely rendered by Ms. Forni — is central to the plot.

Also crucial are the amusing scenes of the four artists in their garret. Rodolfo the starving poet, Marcello the starving painter, Colline the starving philosopher, and Schaunard the starving musician rarely have enough money for either food or firewood, let alone rent. Their shenanigans are a pure illustration of the bohemian lifestyle that dooms poor Mimi, who hasn’t the resourcefulness or deviousness to survive poverty, and besides is the wrong sex for many of the garret boys’ machinations.

Christian Zaremba, Giordano Lucá, Ryan Thorn, Deac Guidi, Will Liverman in ‘La Bohème.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Her female counterpart Musetta perseveres only by jumping from sugar daddy to sugar daddy, a tactic that gives her jewels and nice outfits but no more security than Mimi. (Her clothes are a clever touch by the costume department: obviously costly but not tasteful.)

Bass Christian Zaremba, a veteran performer in his first Portland Opera stage role, is funny and acts well as the philosopher, and his voice nicely mixes with the other bohemians. Ryan Thorn, as Schaunard the musician, uses his strong baritone to excellent effect, and his facial expressions enliven the garret proceedings.

George Manahan’s orchestra played well throughout, and Stage Director Kathleen Belcher’s stage movements were basically good, although things get a little hairy (and crowded) when the chorus is on stage, along with a bunch of kids, a toy seller, a small marching band of soldiers, and all the principal characters, in Act II’s street scene. The sets, of which there three, were fine, although the one used in Acts I and IV (the garret), seemed far too spacious for the penurious claustrophobia the story seems to suggest.

Mimi’s death at the end in this cavernous mausoleum of an apartment is somehow minimized by the enormous space. But all the action of story is finished by then, anyway, and we can be grateful to Mimi and Rodolfo’s stage cohort for an entertaining evening.

Recommended recording

Victoria de los Angeles (Mimì), Jussi Björling (Rodolfo), Lucine Amara (Musetta), Robert Merrill (Marcello), John Reardon (Schaunard), and Giorgio Tozzi (Colline) with the RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting (Naxos 8.111249/50), 1956.

Portland Opera’s latest  La Bohème continues Thursday and Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Tickets and info online.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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