Fairfax Symphony leads off with a winning performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme”

Sun Sep 23, 2018 at 1:27 pm
By Joan Reinthaler

Chris Zimmerman conducted the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” Saturday night. File photo: Neshan Naltchayan

The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra opened its season with a smashing concert performance of Puccini’s Saturday night at the George Mason Center for the Arts.

That the laughs outshined the sadness had more to do, perhaps, with the limitations of the concert staging than with any musical shortcomings. The FSO, under the direction of Christopher Zimmerman, assembled a fine cast of mostly local singers. Director Helen Aberger did what she could with the small strip of down-stage space left by the orchestra and the chorus of revelers –  a few chairs, a tiny side table and, for the last act, a settee so small that Mimi, dying of consumption, barely had room to lean back much less lie down.

As Mimi, soprano Danielle Talamantes was an aptly fragile waif. Tenor Rolando Sanz was bursting with energy and joie de vivre as the bohemian poet, Rodolfo, and the duo made a compellingly sympathetic pair of lovers, struggling with the ups and downs of their relationship.

Where the rest of the cast proclaimed their personalities lustily, Talamantes was able to command attention with a quiet intensity that floated above a considerately hushed orchestra. As the plot thickened, her voice’s hard edge softened to a warm suppleness that projected both maturity and resignation.

Sanz did a splendid job of straddling the devil-may-care world of his Parisian artistic community with the pathos of a bereft lover. He has a big, smooth and expressive tenor, which he used both intelligently and dramatically (not always the same thing). Perhaps most importantly, he has a gift of commanding attention on stage even when he isn’t doing anything. Much of the drama of this opera lies in the slow convergence of these two personalities and Sanz’s character has the furthest to go.

Rodolfo’s three rollicking buddies, Marcello (a painter), Colline (a philosopher) and Schaunard (a musician) were sung by Rob McGinness, Andrew Simpson and Jeffrey Gates. McGinness and Gates pulled off their shenanigans joyfully and with fresh, bright, nicely shaped lines. Simpson, who looked  exquisitely uncomfortable on stage for most of the performance, redeemed himself splendidly as Mimi lay dying with his quiet and reflective farewell to his overcoat.

In some respects, Colleen Daly as the opportunistic coquette, Musetta, stole the show. She blew into Act 2 at Café Momus dressed in a skin-tight red sheath slit to her hip and a fuzzy white wrap. Blessed with a soprano voice that is light with surprising reserves of power, she dominated the stage with a delightful sense of comic timing and the exuberance the role needs. She reduced her aging escort, the pitiful dupe Alcindoro (sung by Gene Kaye), to utter confusion, seduced her former lover, Marcello, to frustration and was the most convincing comforter on stage in Mimi’s final moments.

Placed onstage behind the singers, the playing of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra was terrific. Zimmerman deftly adjusted dynamics and timing, pacing the performance with a singer’s sensibilities. Dynamics were a more delicate challenge and Zimmerman met it beautifully, never overwhelming the voices, allowing diction to emerge clearly while still providing both bumptious excitement and dramatic tension. Only in the hectic energy of the Café Momus scene did ensemble threaten to come unraveled under the strain of tempo and coordination with the chorus.

The only thing glaringly lacking in this production was the lack of attention to costuming, a simple thing that would have made a big difference on this concert presentation. Daly’s Musetta made a lavish impression, in part, because of her dress. Certainly some sort of costume for Mimi instead of the business-looking dress she wore might have been found that emphasized fragility. The casual concert attire for the men–dark suits and white shirt– gave no sense of their professions or their circumstances.

The chorus, prepared by Thomas Colohan performed their assignment lustily, as did the children’s chorus prepared by Joel Ayau.


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