It's probably a bit too early to break out the champagne and caviar and start belting out "Happy Days Are Here Again." But the folks at the Arizona Opera have much to celebrate with their run of Puccini's "La Boheme."
For the first time since it mounted Verdi's "Aida" in 1999 the company has a bonafide every-seat-is-filled soldout run on its hands. There wasn't a seat to spare at the three performances last weekend in Phoenix; the same can be said for the Tucson run, which was sold out for both of its performances this weekend — Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
The company's spokesman Colin Columna said the closest Arizona Opera has come in recent years to a sellout was the 2007 run of another Puccini opera, "Madama Butterfly." But that wasn't a true sellout, he noted; on several nights the houses were about 97 percent full.
The success is good news for the opera and a shot of optimism for arts overall. But the soldout performance of Sunday's "La Boheme" is bad news to anyone who didn't snag a ticket. You're missing out on seeing not only one of the greatest and most popular operas ever, but a mighty fine production.
Arizona Opera Artistic Director/Conductor Joel Revzen was in the pit Saturday night minding over an amazing performance of Puccini's rich score, which moves us through the story of a group of free-spirited bohemians trying to make ends-meet and art matter. (If the plot sounds suspiciously like the Broadway musical "Rent" it's because Johnathan Larson borrowed heavily from the opera.)
Stage designer Peter Dean Beck created an industrial metallic warehouse/loft setting that transformed in the second act into a bustling open courtyard and cafe.
The setting worked well with German Director Guy Montavon's approach to the piece, which was traditional in almost every respect but one: he never let Mimi's progressing illness become the center of attention until the very end, right before she dies. Most productions make a big deal of the illness, letting Mimi cough and hack her way into a sore throat. Montavon's approach brought her illness to light gradually, so we didn't have to go through any explosive coughing fits from the stage.
There were some notable vocal performances, starting with soprano Janinah Burnett making her company debut as Mimi, the consumption-inflicted waif that falls into the tribe as the poet Rodolfo's lover. (John Bellemer, making his first Arizona Opera appearance in seven years, brought a wonderful voice and passionate acting to the role.)
Soprano Rhoslyn Jones had several scene-stealing moments, but her true genius vocally came through in the final scene when she reunites the near-death Mimi with Rodolfo. Her voice was powerful and nuanced, particularly in the upper register, but it was the sheer humanity she brought to the scene that earned her the audience's resounding applause. She went from flightly, flirty party girl to this sympathetic, heart-beating-loudly human being that you wanted to hug and assure that everything would be OK.
Baritone Timothy Mix as Musetta's on-again, off-again boyfriend Marcello was impressive in his Arizona Opera debut and bass Andrew Gangestad brought a nice balance of silliness to the role of the philosopher Colline.
Baritone John Fulton, a member of the Marion Roose Pullin Arizona Opera Studio training program, was superb as Schaunard, a musician and sometime con-man who works his connections to bring home enough money to feed his underemployed roommates. This is Fulton's second role this season; he also turned in a wonderful performance in last fall's "Solome."
The chorus in this production was sizable, including a contingent of talented vocalists from the Phoenix Boys Choir who were delightful to watch and had some pretty fine singing chops.
The audience Saturday was a delightfully mixed bag of young and old. Twentysomethings dressed in nice jeans and button-down shirts or casually dressy slacks and dresses mingled comfortably with older folks, a few donning tuxedos and gowns. There was a celebratory air to the evening, as if those dark economic clouds had parted just a bit and people felt a little more at ease plunking down the price of an opera ticket and enjoying an evening out.
Hopefully the success of "La Boheme" will spill over to Tucson's other arts groups, like the Tucson Symphony Orchestra's concert next week with violinist Vadim Gluzman; or Arizona Theatre Company's run later this month of "The Glass Menagerie."
Next up for Arizona Opera is a concert performance March 6-7 by a trio of critically acclaimed singers: Soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Dolora Zajick and baritone Gordon Hawkins. For tickets, visit Arizona Opera.