Perhaps the reason for this is that Puccini is simply a greater composer than even many professionals realize. His music never seems to grow old; his melodies sound just as original today as when they were first squeezed from his pen. His orchestrations are beautifully woven, and few operatic composers understood the voice as intimately as he did. The city of Paris and the beauty of the Italian language—which infuses his work with melody and rhythm all its own, thereby arguing against translation into English onstage—add a component that melts audiences everywhere.
Hometown diva and impresario Gina Galati has worked tirelessly for years now to enrich the St. Louis community with opera during the normally lean winter months, and her Winter Opera St. Louis, now in its fifth season, continues to grow in its outreach and prestige. The staging of La Boheme at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Prep was marked by complete professionalism, right down to the accordionist who greeted audience members as they arrived. The comfortable and spacious seating at the Center also added to the enjoyment.
Galati is not only the Artistic Director, founder, chief fundraiser and all-around CEO of Winter Opera, but she also manages to play starring roles in the company's productions. How one person can do so much is a mystery of the universe, but her energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and audiences and performers alike are the beneficiaries. Galati is supported by dedicated staff who work tirelessly alongside her.
One of the strengths of Winter Opera is the skillful casting that brings together singers who meld well together and who are able to enhance each other rather than overshadow one another. Appearing in the lead role of Mimi, Galati's silvery voice was well-matched by that of tenor Gary Seydell in the role of her onstage lover Rodofo. In turn, Seydell's/Rodolfo's companions Marcello, sung by Trevor Scheunemann, Schaunard, performed by John-Andrew Fernandez, and Colline, portrayed by Dan Cole, rounded out a strong and adroit male ensemble. Ashley Yvonne Wheat sparkled in the role of the coquettish-yet-caring Musetta.
The supporting roles and chorus added depth and precision to the action onstage, underscoring the passions and emotions of the lead characters. Puccini uses the chorus as a means of adding drama and spice to the inner lives of his protagonists, and it is no small compliment to say that his purpose was ably fulfilled. Like its summer counterpart, Union Avenue Opera Theatre, Winter Opera has always been supported by a capable orchestra that manages to add to the performance without overpowering it, and this production was no exception. Conductor Alfred Savia, music director of the Evansville Philharmonic, welded instrumentalists and vocalists together in the execution of Puccini's rather intricate score. Occasionally there was a thinness in the upper strings, or the shadow of an out-of-sync moment between voices and orchestra, but the exigencies of the fast pace of opera rehearsal and production render such moments almost unavoidable. In time, if fundraising efforts are successful, it would be good to increase the size of the orchestra, particularly the string section.
The staging, lighting and costuming for this production were ample and conservative, which is just what they should be. A Paris café, a winter snowfall, a garret apartment and period costumes—all offer sufficient interest in and of themselves and should not be used for any sort of artistic experimentation in this case.
As I reflected on this opera—which I have seen performed countless times and whose melodies I still find haunting and penetrating—it occurred to me that a 21st century interpretation of the storyline might focus on the social commentary, intentional or not, found in the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, such as impact of poverty on lovers, and the role of an individual's personal libido in the forging of relationships. A thoughtful audience member will find many avenues for thought in this work. Yet what remains fundamental in Puccini is simply that he could take any story and drive it right into the listener's soul. This is why Winter Opera St. Louis, and its counterparts everywhere, are so vital to our life as individuals and as a society.