The Valentine Theatre has become an artistic nexus since mid-September as preparations for the Toledo Opera’s season opener of La Boheme build and intensify toward opening night Friday.
In the eye of this musical maelstrom is James Meena, who selected the singers, gathered company and crew, hired Michael Capasso to stage the production, helped locate the sets, and is now knee deep in rehearsals on the fifth floor of the downtown’s refurbished historic hall.
On Friday at 8 p.m. and next Sunday at 2 p.m., the tragic tale of a lover and his lass, i.e. Rodolfo and Mimi, will unfold to some of the most glorious music this side of heaven. First performed in 1896 in Turin, Italy, Giacomo Puccini’s score is a sky-high confection of luscious choruses and sonorous orchestral playing, lively duets and quartets, and sweet and spicy arias designed to pluck the heartstrings of the most self-controlled listener.
The story is as old as the hills and as new as the latest episode of Twilight, minus the bloodletting.
Rich Boy (Rodolfo) meets Poor Girl (Mimi). They fall in love and set up housekeeping. Cracks appear in the romance and they split up, only to be reunited later, just before Mimi (spoiler alert) dies of consumption.
Capasso, the renowned director in town to stage the production, says, “What you have in Boheme is an amazing story about real life in real-life conditions. It’s young people facing the death of a contemporary for the first time.”
The libretto was written by Puccini’s favorite writers, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who derived their lines from a Henri Murger novel, Scenes de la vie de boheme. (Scenes from the bohemian life).
It was Puccini’s and his fellow writers’ intent all along to bring their audience to tears. They even became their first test audience.
According to author Norman Lebrecht, just as Puccini penned the final scene of the opera, he sang and played his newly minted music to friends gathered at his villa. “All of them wept, and Puccini, too, shed tears,” writes Lebrecht in The Book of Musical Anecdotes.
“They embraced him in silence; and one of them said, ‘These pages will make you immortal.’ ”
And they were correct: La Boheme is a beloved evergreen, one of the top 10 operas performed in theaters around the world. It was last presented locally in the Stranahan at least a decade ago. Then, as now, Meena conducted it.
This time around, Meena has assembled a cast of youngish singers, some returning to the local stage, but many appearing in Toledo for the first time.
Fresh-faced tenor Rolando Sanz, who will sing the role of Rodolfo, is Cuban-American with a degree from the Yale School of Music who has built a devoted national following. Flirtatious as Musetta, the good-hearted courtesan, Jennifer Rowley is a Cleveland native who earned her stripes on the circuit and will join the Metropolitan Opera for its current season.
For Mimi, the Toledo Opera has engaged Sujin Lee, the Korean soprano with a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, now an adjunct professor at Bowling Green State University.
Also in the cast are Lee Poulis, Michael Krzankowski, Jason Budd (a former Toledo Opera intern), and Sean Cooper. The Toledo Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus will be in the production as well, filling the snug Valentine stage to capacity, particularly in the lively Act II, the street scene when all of Paris is out to party.
Yes, La Boheme is set in Paris, although the text is written and sung in Italian, with English super titles.
The opening scene is the quintessential drafty garret where Rodolfo and his art school homies are broke but happy and ready to party. After negotiating their way out of paying rent with their crabby landlord, they are set to depart when Mimi, the poor seamstress who lives upstairs, appears in the doorway, asking for a match.
“It truly is love at first sight,” claims Capasso, of the moment when Cupid’s bow hit’s a bullseye and the drama launches its tortuous path.
As Act I ends, the quartet of friends plus Mimi are headed out for a Christmas Eve celebration. The party gets hearty in Act II, when the audience will meet Musetta, who rules this act with her famed solo praising the benefits of a life lived for love.
Meena, who will lead the Toledo Orchestra in the pit for both performances, started the rehearsal process on Sept. 19 with a complete run-through of the opera with the seven soloists.
Conducting without a score, Meena led the singers through their paces, stopping to refine a point here or there, discussing a detail with rehearsal pianist Kevin Bylsma, and occasionally sharing a tidbit about the opera or its composer.
“Puccini was fastidious in making his scores,” observed Meena, noting that the composer wrote in every small performance detail, the better to be sure successor conductors could achieve the effects he desired. “The hard thing to learn is to trust what the composer wrote, to sublimate your own tendencies,” he explained.
Of course, there is no recording of that 1895 performance of La Boheme, then conducted by a young Arturo Toscanini. But today, Meena is a stickler for fidelity to Puccini‘s own instructions.
“A conductor should be like a C.S.I with the score,” said Meena, adding, “He should dig into it and figure out the clues.”
Today the general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina, based in Charlotte, Meena, a Cleveland native, also conducts opera in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Phoenix, Grand Rapids, Mich., and other stages around the country.
For Capasso, founder and general director of Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York City, Puccini is a fave composer among the 24 or so he has studied to better stage more than 100 different operas.
“Puccini is so smart and economical, he knows how long it takes to walk across the stage,” says Capasso, liking the fact that he need not invent unnecessary moves for his cast simply to stay busy during long musical passages.
“Puccini knew exactly what he wanted,” said Capasso. “The director of every Puccini opera is . . . Puccini.”
(Capasso is preparing to produce and perform in a new production he wrote, Puccini’s Passion, in which he will portray the Italian composer in a lighthearted exploration of his beloved operas, from Boheme to Madame Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, and Tosca.)
Tickets start at $30 for both performances. Information and reservations are available at 419-255-7464 or www.toledoopera.org. The Valentine Theatre is at 410 Adams St. Michael Capasso will give a free, public talk about Puccini and his life and loves at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Registry Bistro, 425 Jefferson Ave., (between Fifth Third Field and Huntington Center). A wine reception will follow with a $15 charge.
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