Updated Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 01:31 PM
Little did I think that I would ever be calling a production of “La Bohème” one of the major triumphs in Speight Jenkins’ three-decade tenure as general director of Seattle Opera.
But the production that opened on Saturday, directed by Tomer Zvulun and conducted by Carlo Montanaro with flair and perceptivity in equal measure, persuaded me that the work is not merely immensely popular but a much greater opera than I have previously thought.
From the dramatic point of view, Zvulun’s deployment of his two casts threw new light on the humanity of the piece. Deplorable though the four Bohemians’ behavior in the first two acts may be, in bilking their landlord Benoit of his rent and leaving Alcindoro to foot the bill for their Café Momus jaunt, what came over most strikingly in this staging, in both pathetic and exuberantly hilarious moments, was the genuinely warm friendship they shared.
It was a vindication of the view that any decently humanistic moral code should be viewed not as a facile distinction between black and white, but as an infinite range of shades of gray. Musically, meanwhile, Montanaro’s leadership blended the voices on stage with surgingly — sometimes even startlingly — zestful work in the orchestra pit in a way that made Puccini’s score more intoxicatingly beautiful than any performance I can remember.
The visual aspect of the production, played in the late Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, held over from the company’s 2007 staging, was magical. Originally designed by Seattle native Erhard Rom for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the set for the first and last acts daringly left open not just the front of their room but much of the back wall also, imaginatively revealing a fascinating Parisian panorama. The Café Momus set, easily accommodating Beth Kirchhoff’s splendid chorus, and the scene for the chilling third act, lit with wonderful subtlety by Robert Wierzel, provided perfect contrast. And the qualities any Puccini opera needs to overwhelm its audience — great singing and acting — were in unstinting supply.
Of the two lead tenors, Francesco Demuro offered the more appealingly youthful and Michael Fabiano the more seductively assertive Rodolfo, and both sang gorgeously. There are similarly valid shades of difference in the two singers playing Mimì: on opening night, Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero, pouring forth a stream of glorious tone, showed us more of the character’s inner strength, whereas Jennifer Black on Sunday, with no lack of vocal power, nevertheless came closer to the familiar image of a profoundly vulnerable young woman.
As Saturday’s Marcello, Michael Todd Simpson — his reactions to Musetta’s tempting in the cafe scene vividly and touchingly human — perhaps realized the humor of the part more comprehensively than Keith Phares, but the latter was vocally superb and dramatically excellent in a less demonstrative manner. Norah Amsellem and Jennifer Zetlan provided two dazzlingly attractive and vocally accomplished Musettas, graduating convincingly from gold-digger to sympathetic friend. It was good to find, in Colline, Arthur Woodley’s rich bass voice put to use for once in a relatively youthful role, and Andrew Garland was a neatly played and agreeably sung Schaunard.
I can confidently assure anyone planning to attend one of the remaining eight performances of this not-to-be-missed “Bohème” that the so-called “gold” and “silver” casts are for once equally thrilling.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Giacomo Puccini. Starring Elizabeth Caballero and Francesco Demuro, with Tomer Zvulun, director, and Carlo Montanaro, conductor; through March 10 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$237 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org)
Elizabeth Caballero and Francesco Demuro are in the gold cast of “La Bohème” at Seattle Opera.