Friday, November 23, 2007

Bohemian Follies

Last fall, when the San Francisco Opera presented Puccini's La Boheme, audiences got a strange taste of how different an opera production can become when certain crucial elements are altered. The genesis of this La Boheme revival is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the perverse kinds of artistic and financial pressures an impresario can be subjected to when an egocentric superstar attempts to run an opera company.

Originally, the time slot for La Boheme had been reserved for a double bill of two new productions: Puccini's Suor Angelica (starring Mirella Freni) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (starring Luciano Pavarotti). Freni, however, decided that Puccini's one-act tearjerker was too emotional for her to handle and decided not to sing the role anymore. Last January, when she and Pavarotti scored a huge success at the Metropolitan Opera in a revival of La Boheme conducted by Carlos Kleiber, the logical solution was for the San Francisco Opera to revive La Boheme in place of the endangered double bill and, at the same time, use the substitution as a means of saving money on the costs of a new production.

After the contracts had been renegotiated, signed and delivered, Terry McEwen (a long-time friend of both stars) announced his resignation from the post of General Director. During the search for his successor, speculation ran rampant about whether or not Pavarotti would break his contract if McEwen were no longer in town.

Meanwhile, operatic starfuckers who had bought and/or scalped tickets for those performances in which Pavarotti was scheduled to appear (many fans flew into town from cities across North America for the event) wondered whether or not their favorite superstar would perform. Some reassured themselves that, if they possessed tickets to any of the four performances of La Boheme which were being videotaped for European distribution, they would be fine. Others fretted over their financial investment and the warning on their tickets which stated that all performances are subject to changes of cast and repertoire.

Season subscribers whose series featured performances without Pavarotti resigned themselves to hearing "just another Boheme." In retrospect, they were the ones who enjoyed the last laugh. Here's why.


As most people have since learned, Pavarotti's management had double-booked the tenor so that, after taping La Boheme in San Francisco, he could make his operatic directing debut in Italy with a production of Donizetti's La Favorita starring Shirley Verrett. Throughout his stay in San Francisco, Pavarotti's backstage behavior was so abominable that the superstar ended up being lampooned in Herb Caen's column. In a gross display of "tenoritis," Pavarotti had an integral part of the scenery removed so that he wouldn't have to climb stairs, tried to redirect the opera so that the stage action would conform to the way he usually performs Rodolfo and, in the process of making life miserable for his colleagues, proceeded to transform himself into a real pain in the ass. One artist who sat in on the final dress rehearsal of La Boheme confided to me that Pavarotti's appallingly egocentric behavior made her feel embarrassed to be considered a professional colleague.

I caught Pavarotti in performance at a Saturday matinee in November when the cast sounded fresh enough and the performance was going fairly smoothly. Pavarotti was in relatively good voice, noticeably slimmed down and, although his Act I aria, "Che gelida manina" had been lowered a half-tone, seemed to be "on" (a friend pointed out that miracles can and sometimes do happen when Luciano knows that the cameras are rolling). Mirella Freni delivered a portrait of Mimi which was, as always, dramatically valid, reliably well-sung and totally professional. Her husband, Nicolai Ghiaurov, appeared as Colline opposite Stephen Dickson's Schaunard while handsome Gino Quilico brought a much-needed sense of youthful vitality and playfulness to the production. Soprano Sandra Pacetti (who has apparently replaced Madelyn Renee as Pavarotti's "personal secretary") made a vulgar and rather unimpressive debut as Musetta. Tiziano Severini's conducting had the subtlety of Mack truck.

Having been duly hyped for Pavarotti's appearance, the audience responded enthusiastically. My own feeling was that, while the matinee had certainly been a satisfactory performance, there was a mechanical coldness to the proceedings which was made even more suspect by a sense of forced and faked emotion.


Several weeks later, when OPERA America convened in town for its annual conference, many of its members (like the rest of the public) arrived at the Opera House having purchased tickets to La Boheme with high hopes of hearing Pavarotti and Freni together again. By that time, Luciano had skipped town and Luis Lima (who was originally scheduled to sing in the second cast) had taken his place. For the opening night of the second cast, Mexican tenor Fernando De La Mora stepped into Rodolfo's shoes and, with a cast of younger singers around him, delivered a performance which made jaded operagoers shed tears of genuine emotion.

At this point in his career, De La Mora (a protege of Placido Domingo who made his professional debut in 1986) is still young enough and new enough on the opera scene to find it all a bit intimidating and experience strong feelings of discovery while in performance. Blessed with superb dramatic and musical support from Cecilia Gasdia's beautifully-etched Mimi, Mark Delavan's touching Schaunard and Kevin Langan's sonorous Colline, De La Mora sang like an angel (without having to transpose his big aria down a half step) and glowed with puppy love. David Malis's handsomely-sung Marcello provided a wonderful foil for Evelyn de la Rosa's remarkably feminine Musetta (a winningly emotional characterization which let the audience come to her rather than attempting to sell the audience a bunch of tired, old operatic shtick).

John Fiore conducted the orchestra for the second cast's performances with much more consideration for the score's parameters and, to the amusement of those with sharp eyes, the original scenery, complete with its staircase, returned to grace the Bohemian garret where Marcello and Rodolfo once lived and loved. Veteran performer Italo Tajo doubled as Benoit and Alcindoro in all three casts.

There was no question in my mind that the second cast delivered a vastly superior performance to the first one; an ensemble effort which captured the essence of what La Boheme is all about. I only wish that all the starfuckers who were so intent on seeing Luciano perform live would have stuck around long enough to experience a genuinely moving performance of Puccini's opera. The ultimate irony is that those who missed out on the Pavarotti phenomenon got the real thing, instead.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 16, 1989.

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