Opera review: 'La Boheme' at San Diego Opera
SAN DIEGO -- Two debuts at San Diego Opera’s “La Bohème” on Saturday night: one expected, one unexpected -- both impressive.
Earlier this month, the soprano scheduled to play Mimi in the company's first production of the 2010 season canceled, so it called on Ellie Dehn. Dehn, an impressive Freia in Los Angeles Opera’s “Das Rheingold” last year, was preparing for her first Mimi with Minnesota Opera in March. She stepped onto the San Diego Civic Center stage on opening night and sang Puccini’s fragile heroine for the first time with an expansive, clear tone and simple, straightforward characterization.
The expected debut was even more impressive. If Dehn’s Mimi showed why “La Bohème” is such an easy favorite both of opera companies and of audiences (it’s a great, uncomplicated showcase for young singers), Piotr Beczala’s Rodolfo revealed the more subtle riches of Puccini’s music. The Polish tenor dazzled with his first aria, “Che gelida manina,” displaying a compact lyric voice, articulate Italian diction, and no strain even in the highest notes, from a lovely high A in the first scene to the stabbing G sharps as he cried out for Mimi. It may not be a big, or particularly rich, sound, but throughout the opera Beczala’s fine breathing, focused line and expert phasing made it a truly expressive voice.
It’s been 30 years since Luciano Pavarotti sang “La Bohème” in his only appearance at San Diego Opera, and Beczala is certainly the most thrilling Rodolfo to appear here since then, and arguably the best Rodolfo seen in Southern California since Placido Domingo played the young poet in 1987 -- and yes, that takes into account Roberto Alagna at L.A. Opera in 2004 and Ramon Vargas in concert at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2002. (For those who can’t make the trip to see Beczala in person, he can be heard as Rodolfo -- opposite Anna Netrebko’s Mimi -- on the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast on Feb. 27.)
The rest of the cast in John Conklin’s 1990 production performed agreeably. Jeff Mattsey was a blustery, barking Marcello -- which made him a nice match with Priti Gandhi’s big-voiced, if rarely subtle, Musetta. Their competitive interaction in the Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired Act 2 was well staged and quite amusing, thanks in part to Scott Sikon’s delightful buffo turn as the stuffy sugar daddy Alcindoro. Conductor Karen Keltner was not always on the same page with her young singers, but she and the orchestra performed this warhorse (seen in San Diego every five years going back to the 1970s) in a lively fashion
Feb. 1 marks the 114 years exactly since Puccini’s opera premiered. After all that time, a solid production of “La Bohème” like this one still has the ability to make the music and its love story -- not to mention the audience -- feel much younger than their age.
-- James C. Taylor in San Diego
“La Bohème," San Diego Opera. Civic Theater, 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Feb. 7, $35-$190.
Photo: Piotr Beczala and Ellie Dehn in San Diego Opera’s "La Bohème." Credit: Cory Weaver