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OPERA REVIEW

Honing Their Skills

February 12, 2006

Lori Decter


Sandra Rubalcava

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By Scott MacClelland

Opera San José exists to give its already-professional singers stage experience, an invaluable benefit to the many talented young people who are brought into the program for a year or two to learn how to — in a word — act.

For OSJ's discerning audiences, success reveals itself from one production to the next, often in the space of a single season, for better or worse. Of course, some actors seem born to the stage, just as some singers display a talent so natural that it all but hides technique. (And don't overlook the further irony to those opera superstars whose vocal acumen instantly blew past the stage critics, and those stage geniuses who conquered opera with "una grande voccaza," a great ugly voice, as Toscanini is said to have described Maria Callas.)

For its new production of Puccini's La bohème, OSJ's Sunday matinee audience gave its loudest approbation to Joseph Wright, as the painter Marcello, and Sandra Rubalcava, as Musetta. They deserved it. Both sang with great authority and house-filling presence, and worked the stage like veterans — especially Rubalcava in her brightly colored Café Momus waltz scene. Lori Decter's Mimi was especially affecting in her first act “Mi chiamano Mimi” and second act farewell to her quarrelsome lover Rodolfo. But her stage acting was often ambiguous and unfocused. Likewise Adam Flowers as Rodolfo, whose vocalizing also lacked consistency — too soft in moments calling for heft, too loud when intimacy was in order. Kirk Eichelberger sustained vivid vocal and stage presence as Schaunard.

Deft art

In La bohème, Puccini worked his musical gifts with uncommon magic, skewing the narrative away from its darker aspects — the desperate circumstances of the women as against the carefree men of privilege pretending to be starving artists. One of Puccini's tricks is a subtle nostalgia that seems to inspire recollections of vaguely familiar memories, déjà-vu style. Among the audience, it was possible to observe points of light reflected in eyes brimming with tears. Some of the opera's turns of phrase are recycled throughout, like Wagnerian leitmotifs, but others seemed to reach back further to touch some pre-opera regret.

Moreover, Puccini plays with music in this piece, almost to the point of sendup. In the last act, Colline sings farewell to his threadbare coat before cashing it in to buy medicine for the dying Mimi. (Jesse Merlin was at his earnest best in the moment.) And Wright and Flowers join in an impromptu duet over their mutual frustrations with their girlfriends. Since there is no real drama to speak of here, musical comedy definitely sparks musical tragedy.

Kim Tolman's set designs gave the second act (Café Momus) and third act (the Paris city gate) a solid feel for space and context. The verticality of two-story buildings fit in excellent proportion to the horizontal stage areas. But the garret of Acts I and IV displayed so many contradictory angles and vanishing points as to make one crave Dramamine for the unsettled stomach. David Rohrbaugh provided a secure foundation and his orchestra performed vivaciously.

(Scott MacClelland, since 1978, has written music criticism and journalism for all the major newspapers on the Monterey Peninsula, and for the Metro papers in Santa Cruz and San Jose. During the same period, he has taught music history for Monterey Peninsula College.)

©2006 Scott MacClelland, all rights reserved