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A Safe but Uneven Season Opener at HGO

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
10/19/2012 -  and Oct 21, 27, 30, Nov 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 2012
Giacomo Puccini: La bohème
Joshua Hopkins (Marcello), Dmitri Pittas (Rodolfo), Vuyani Mlinde (Colline), Michael Sumual (Schaunard), Hector Vásquez (Benoît, Alcindoro), Katie Van Kooten (Mimì), Kevin Ray (Parpignol), Heidi Stober (Musetta)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Evan Rogister (conductor), John Caird (Director)
David Farley (Set and Costume Designer), Michael James Clark (Lighting Designer)

D. Pittas, K. Van Kooten (© Felix Sanchez)

Perryn Leech, Houston Grand Opera's managing director, asks the prescient question in the playbill: "Does anyone want to see another completely traditional production of La bohème?", and, reading this before the curtain rose, the expectation was raised that there would be something "different" about the new production about to unfold. Director John Caird has worked wonders for HGO, crafting a thoroughly memorable Tosca in 2010. But after the frisky opening motive of the score, it was clear that this was going to be, for all intents, "another completely traditional production."

That in itself wouldn't be a fault, and the visual design of this production is certainly not unattractive. The conceit of using giant canvasses to create the scenery, as if it were all dreamed up in Marcello's imagination, was effective. The costumes were appropriate, and the mobile sets morphed smoothly between the pairs of acts. Indeed, from this perspective, the production was wholly safe and sturdy, almost a blank canvas that would allow us to put all of our focus on the music, which was unfortunately uneven.

Katie van Kooten was easily the star of the night, adding the role of Mimì to her several other HGO triumphs. She again stunned with the range of her acting and its reflection in her vocal nuances. There was a charming simplicity to "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì", delivered with purity of tone and unexaggerated phrasing, offset by a painfully bittersweet "Donde lieta uscì", infused with the intensity of a slightly quickened vibrato betraying Mimì's fragility. Sadly, Dmitri Pittas seemed strained by the role of Rodolfo, not able to capture the security and panache that he displayed so thrillingly as Edgardo in Lucia.

Musetta and Marcello were more successful as a pair, with Joshua Hopkins (also impressive recently with the Houston Symphony) singing with confidence and intensity, and Heidi Stober exquisitely following her character's dramatic arc from coquette to comforter. Her flexible voice soared and dove through ensemble numbers, while Hopkins' firm, focused baritone laid a firm foundation. This made the Act III encounter between Mimì and Marcello the highlight of the evening, the pairing of van Kooten and Hopkins as perfect as could be.

Smaller roles were mostly well cast. Special credit should be given to Hector Vásquez, doing double duty as Benoît and Alcindoro and convincing as both. As the other artist, Vuyani Mlinde and Michael Sumual both satisfied.

Things seemed hectic from the pit. Evan Rogister conducted at high speed throughout the performance, and this could be said to be the most memorable aspect of the entire production, though perhaps not in the best way. The openings of the first two acts were so hasty that the abundance of words in the libretto simply became muddled. This was especially true in the opening of Act II, where the children's and adult choruses did an admirable job keeping up with the baton. The fact that young voices could articulate "Parpignol" as rapidly and frequently as they did is amazing, though one feels that the scene would have had more impact at a slightly more measured tempo.

In all, this was a safe production to open HGO's 2012-13 season, but one hopes for more vocal fireworks and more thoughtful interpretation in future productions.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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