A Broadway-Style ‘Boheme’ but Opera Tradition Prevails


Giocomo Puccini is the 20th century’s rubber duck. Try to push him down--as modernists, intellectuals and progressives continually have--and he just pops up again.

Actually, at century’s end, Puccini has become an unsinkable armada. He can’t be stopped. He helps keep opera houses everywhere in business. Present-day Broadway would be unthinkable without him, what with his influence on the musical style of Andrew Lloyd Webber and with “Rent,” the wildly successful update of “La Boheme.” Even a feature film of “Madama Butterfly” is on its way from France.

So, the “Broadway-style ‘Boheme’ ” that San Francisco Opera has mounted might seem a next inevitable step. To celebrate the centennial of Puccini’s most beloved opera, the company is presenting it in the Orpheum Theatre, where road-show musicals and rock concerts are more common. Ticket prices are in the average Broadway range, not the lordly amounts opera houses usually demand. And there are, as on Broadway, eight shows a week.

The show is a hit. Houses are full. The reviews are great. And the audiences that could be witnessed at the matinee and evening performances Wednesday indicate that the company has reached the elusive audience it--and all classical music presenters these days--has targeted.


The evening crowd, in particular, looked more like denizens of art museums and hot restaurants than like the classical music crowd.

But nothing beyond the ticket prices, performance schedule and audience suggests Broadway.

Indeed, this is a very traditional production. Puccini’s score is intact. Orchestra, singers and conductor are all opera folk. The opera is still sung in Italian (with projected translations). There is no amplification. In fact, the production seemed less like an innovative attempt to remake opera than like a matter of simple expediency, the company moving its regular wares from the War Memorial Opera House, which is closed for seismic retrofitting and renovation (the fall season will take place at Civic Auditorium), to a temporary facility.

The success revolves mainly around that fact that Mark Lamos’ production is very good and very conventional. The director pays attention to small dramatic details that mean a lot. If one believes the setting--and who wouldn’t recognize the snotty Parisian waiters in the Cafe Momus scene or the homeless on the outskirts of the city?--one is more likely to believe the rest.

The production moves fluidly, is often clever and looks splendid in Michael Yeargan’s realistic and well-defined sets. That’s necessary, because little else is consistent from show to show.

The ads, with their raves from Herb Caen and the local critics, don’t, of course, point out how different the performance you see may be from the one reviewed opening night or the one your friends might have seen. Because opera singers, more like pitchers in baseball than like Broadway belters, need two or three days of rest between performances, the daily schedule requires multiple casts and conductors.

San Francisco Opera has consequently brought in an array of young singers, some far more experienced than others. And what a difference the few hours between matinee and evening performance Wednesday made.

The matinee cast was consistently confident and winning; one regularly hears worse from much bigger names and in much bigger houses. The evening cast, on the other hand, had promise, but here the impression was of noting talented singers in a professional opera training program.


For the record, the sensitive and touching afternoon Mimi was Patricia Racette and her ardent Rodolfo was Roberto Aronica (taken from a different cast to replace the scheduled tenor).

Ann Panagulias (probably the best known singer in the stable) was a delirious Musetta, Earle Patriarco a strong Marcello, Philip Skinner a mellifluous Colline, Hector Vasquez a lively Schaunard.

At the evening performance, Mark Oswald and Peggy Kriha Dye were an attractive Marcello and Musetta, worth watching then and worth keeping an eye on in the future. But Alison Buchanan (Mimi) and Tito Beltran (Rodolfo), along with the others, have further polishing ahead of them.

As if in compensation, the matinee conductor, Stephen Mercurio, was flighty and unfocused, while in the evening, Ian Robertson, conductor of the opera chorus, was supportive and sharp in his phrasing.


A stalwart who stays through the last of the 28 performances can also hear a third conductor; three more Mimis; additional pairs of Rodolfos, Marcellos and Collines; and another Musetta. It’s the only possible way to mount “La Boheme” Broadway-style and not make it seem low-"Rent.” But it also means you pays your money and you takes your chances.

* “La Boheme,” Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Through June 30. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $20-$65. (415) 864-3330.