It's a mark of a masterpiece that you can still enjoy a work even if the performance struggles at times. That's the spectacular level Puccini achieved with "La Boheme," which opened at the Benedum Center Saturday night with less-than-spectacular lead singing in an otherwise agreeable Pittsburgh Opera production.
"Boheme" is versimo work, part of that late-19th century movement towards depicting everyday situations rather than the extraordinary lives of kings or gods. It peeks in at the lives of struggling artists in Paris: poet Rodolfo (Frank Lopardo), painter Marcello (David Adam Moore), philosopher Colline (Liam Moran), musician Schaunard (Jonathan Beyer) and love interests, Mimi (Pamela Armstrong) and Musetta (Rhoslyn Jones). Puccini bestowed uncommon music to commonplace happenings, like the artists complaining about how cold it is in their dingy apartment. And the city setting is one that contemporary audiences could relate to, and still can when presented with evocative period scenery created by Michael Yeargan for this production. Furthermore, while most operas dwell endlessly on obvious plot turns, "Boheme" is tight, even placing the key development of Mimi's worsening tuberculosis off-stage.
Finally, the "Boheme" is bound by a cohesive orchestral score, including some spectacular touches like the burning of Rodolfo's manuscript (although director Crystal M. Manich let the "fire" burn for several measures before Marcello put even the paper in!). Music director Antony Walker culled vibrant playing from his pit, telling the story sonically through a careful shepherding of themes and dynamics. The soaring violins and rumbling brass were almost characters.
But "Boheme" can only go so far when the actual characters aren't the prime mover of the action through their voices. Even its more realistic drama doesn't reach theatrical levels of believability. Scenes such as the incredible quickness with which Rodolfo and Mimi fall deep in love achieve sincerity only through the ephemeral tapestry of Puccini's vocal writing. The Pittsburgh Opera production didn't attain this level, especially with the leads.
Lopardo never presented the vocal gusto of Rodolfo. It's not just that he sang with less volume overall, it's that he didn't sing with the white-hot core of sound that the role demands. I am not sure his voice possesses the needed spinto quality, but his lack of energy Saturday suggests he might have been a little under the weather. In any case, he was often dominated by Armstrong, which is anything but what the tale calls for.
Playing the sickly seamstress demands the use of color. Mimi gets little time to establish her persona, and it must be accomplished with subtle inflections and the alternation of meek and glowing tints. Armstrong had an attractive full voice, but her timbre was too monochromatic here and she relied instead on dynamic shifts for emotion.
Jones portrayed the self-centered Musetta with hilarious histrionics, but didn't back that up with a compelling performance of the signature aria "Quando me'n vo." It was adequate, but didn't quite offer the ravishing tone or creative phrasing to be the musical equivalent of a woman whose beauty could stop busy Parisan crowds.
If Manich's direction occasionally disregarded the score, she captured the relationship between the artists well. The action had the feel of a good sitcom ("Friends" kept coming to mind), such was the rapport of Moore, Moran and Beyer. Lopardo's wooden acting was quite a few rungs beneath theirs, but still the fun-loving nature of the foursome came through.
Local favorite Kevin Glavin is a basso buffo of the first degree, and he re-created the landlord Benoit and the rich old Alcindoro with bumbling brilliance and buoyant bellowing. In the Latin Quarter scene, the chorus (trained by Mark Trawka) sang with crispness and vivacity.
And so it goes with this 18th production at Pittsburgh Opera of the popular "Boheme." There was much to appreciate, but the emotional content of the "Boheme," which ultimately flows from the voices, never rose as high as it could.