The hungry years

Beloved score, bad sets: Houston Grand Opera's uneven La Bohème evokes mixed emotions

Beloved score, bad sets: Houston Grand Opera's uneven La Bohème evokes mixed emotions

Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Dimitri Pittas, Katie Van Kooten, Joshua Hopkins, Heidi Stober, Michael Sumuel, October 2012
Dimitri Pittas (Rodolfo) comforts Katie Van Kooten (Mimi) while Joshua Hopkins (Marcello) embraces Heidi Stober (Musetta) and Michael Sumuel (Schaunard) looks on in Act IV of Houston Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Photo by © Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Vuyani Mlinde, Joshua Hopkins, Dimitri Pittas, Michael Sumuel, Robert Pomakov, October 2012
Vuyani Mlinde (Colline), Joshua Hopkins (Marcello), Dimitri Pittas (Rodolfo), and Michael Sumuel (Schaunard) have a drink with Hector Vásquez (Benoit, the landlord) in Act I of Houston Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Photo by © Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Robert Pomakov, Katie Van Kooten, October 2012
Dimitri Pittas (Rodolfo) comforts Katie Van Kooten (Mimi) in Act IV of Houston Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème Photo by © Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Dimitri Pittas, Katie Van Kooten, Joshua Hopkins, Heidi Stober, Michael Sumuel, October 2012
Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Vuyani Mlinde, Joshua Hopkins, Dimitri Pittas, Michael Sumuel, Robert Pomakov, October 2012
Houston Grand Opera, Puccini’s La bohème, Robert Pomakov, Katie Van Kooten, October 2012

Why do so many people connect with Puccini’s La Bohème? Possibly, because many of us remember living what is often called “the hungry years.” 

It might have been in college, a time when we were somewhere in between adolescence and actual independence, and when perhaps we first aspired to creative activities, whether painting, poetry, or philosophy. Chances are, it was also the first time we fell in love.

As an undergraduate, I saw La Bohème several times in very different productions, and it always evoked strong emotions for me. I remember a dusty staging in Budapest, sung in Hungarian, where I sat in the upper balcony.

The seat cost six forints, approximately 48 cents at the time, perfect on a student budget. How could I not identify with Mimi and Rodolfo? I, too, was living on sausages and rye crackers, stored in the heavy winter air between the window panes of my room at the Hotel Astoria. I dreamed of Musetta-style shopping sprees, in secret, even if I was quite proud of the poor persona I projected to my friends and family. And yes, I fell in love.

 Perhaps the biggest problems were David Farley’s unremarkable costumes and set designs, which give rise to a secondary problem: A tiny performance area that often appears crowded and unfocused. 

It was with both a sense of nostalgia and eager anticipation that l attended the opening of Houston Grand Opera’s  58th season Friday night, featuring a new production of La Bohème co-produced with Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera. A number of the singers were familiar names, and young conductor Evan Rogister (a former Houston Grand Opera Studio artist), I thought, was sure to bring new energy to the ever-popular score.

The opening night performance was uneven. Perhaps the biggest problems were David Farley’s unremarkable costumes and set designs, which give rise to a secondary problem: A tiny performance area that often appears crowded and unfocused.

Marcello’s numerous half-finished canvases in the first act transform into the Paris cityscape in the second, hardly ingenious. In both instances they are a dull, monochromatic mess. This is Farley’s Houston Grand Opera debut, and it’s not in keeping with the high production standards of the company.

The stage environment also had a way of swallowing the sound, especially when the singers faced upstage to satisfy director John Caird’s complicated blocking. Painted proscenium curtains hanging above everything only contributed to the poor acoustics. This had to have been a challenging environment for the singers, many of whom struggled with pitch and volume throughout the four acts.

Puccini’s beloved score is not homogenous schmaltz. I remember a voice teacher at the music conservatory I attended remarking (as a fledgling student attempted to bring off Musetta’s waltz) “Why don’t you just sing it as written?” She had noticed aspiring student after aspiring student neglecting the dynamic markings in the score.

In her later years, she was losing her patience. As studio accompanist, I never forgot the lesson: Look closely at Puccini and don’t forget that much of it is intensely soft. Sing the whole thing loud and you’ve ruined it! And your pitch had better be perfect!

 Heidi Stober is a stunning, unconditionally wonderful Musetta. She has clarity, vigor, and a kind of bullet-pitch that always hits the mark. 

 Soprano Katie Van Kooten, who made such a brilliant impression as Elizabeth I in last season’s Maria Stuarda, is not quite right for the role of Mimi. Her well-supported but at times dark and hooty voice is often more than the role can bear. When the phrases go into the upper register, she gets simultaneously louder. 

It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, but I found her just too heavy-handed, and her voice wobbled considerably in the first act. I wondered, as well, if she was frustrated in the numerous duet passages with tenor Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo. He had serious pitch problems throughout the opera and sang the duets as if competing with Van Kooten. His acting was wooden.

It’s not all bad news. Heidi Stober is a stunning, unconditionally wonderful Musetta. She has clarity, vigor, and a kind of bullet-pitch that always hits the mark. She brings considerable sex appeal to the role. I have always wondered why Puccini didn’t write more material for Musetta. After the opening performance, I think I know why. She is a potential theatrical threat to the intended heroine, Mimi.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins also gives a stunning portrayal of Marcello, the feisty painter who keeps falling in and out of love with Musetta. With his exacting diction and overall extroversion, he gives the impression of being a native Italian singer. Fans will remember him as Junius in last season’s The Rape of Lucretia. It’s thrilling to hear and see him in this secondary role.

Opening night is sometimes an off night, and hopefully the singing will improve during the run. The wonderful children’s chorus in the second act didn’t seem to mind the crowded stage, and their pure, strong voices prevailed over the complications of Farley’s haphazard set design and Caird’s direction.