As Kristin Vogel sang her way tragically through Mimi’s onstage death Saturday in the Rialto Theater, the woman next to me was pulling out the tissues.
“She dies every time,” she sniffled, half-sheepish. “But it still gets me.”
Which kind of sums up Tacoma Opera’s season-opening production of “La Bohème.” The Puccini tear-jerker is standard opera fare, and it reappears every five or so years at Tacoma Opera (2006, 2012). That doesn’t make it any more innovative, especially when director Linda Kitchens chooses to set it smack in the original time and place: 1850s Paris. But folks still love it. What saves this production from sets that don’t always work and a conductor that doesn’t always keep things together is the singing: powerful, rich and perfectly blended, so that by the time Mimi is coughing her last you’ve gotten a lot of vocal bang for your buck.
The richness — and the problems — start right at the beginning, when the orchestra bursts into that scurrying upward motif that is so hard to get together at the best of times, and which under Bernard Kwiram never quite came together. But as bohemian friends artist Marcello (José Rubio) and poet Rodolfo (Jon Farmer) enter the scene, shivering in their freezing garret, you realize you’re in for an evening of great singing. Rubio’s vibrant, rich baritone only gets better over time, especially with this jokester role. Though Farmer’s tenor sounded a little hoarse on Rodolfo’s high tessitura, his acting makes up for it: optimistic, likeable and passionate (just like his 2012 performance).
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The philosopher Colline (Damien Geter, with quiet humor and a resonant bass) and musician Schaunard (jovial Adrian Rosales, who makes up for stiff vocals with impressive gymnastics) add to the group dynamic of swift playfulness. Sadly, the ensemble was often drowned by an enthusiastic Kwiram, who should have been more sensitive to the volume of an orchestra placed in the first few rows of the audience.
The other problem was the set. Two rotating walls that were on one side a high-windowed apartment, on the other some café walls, were inventively flexible, but the screened-off hallway immediately veiled both volume and drama in that first enticing scene where Mimi stumbles into Rodolfo’s life. Having them both sing those famous lines (“Mi chiamo Mimi) from halfway upstage just added to the lack of volume.
Newcomer Kristin Vogel made up for everything as a self-composed Mimi, her jewel-toned soprano darting like a butterfly (though with a little too much melodrama, even for Puccini). Other characters shone as well. Golden-voiced Jessica Noronha was saucy, sassy and delightfully narcissistic as Marcello’s girlfriend Musetta. Glenn Guhr alternated between the hunched, wavery landlord Benoit and Musetta’s sugar-daddy Alcindoro.
The chorus did the best they could with a set that bunched them all into a side corner (with resulting ensemble issues), and the children’s chorus was adorable and mostly on time.
After intermission the orchestra improved, with some lovely solos from oboist Noelle Burns, clarinetist Florie Rothenburg and concertmaster Janis Upshall.
Mostly, though, this production’s strength was the sheer force of the singing. The wall of sound in the Act I finale septet, the delicate moments as Mimi fails and each friend contributes what they can (including a superb “coat” aria from Geter), and of course Mimi herself, bursting with beauty and pathos right up until the final snuffed candle.
Of course you’re going to break out the tissues. She dies every time, but that’s not really the point, is it?