TAMPA — La Boheme always comes with high expectations, because it is probably the most popular opera in the United States and can be such a touching experience. So it was maddening that the Opera Tampa production of Puccini's portrait of youthful friendship, art and tragic romance in 19th century Paris got off to a ragged start on Thursday night for the opening performance of the final production in the company's inaugural Florida Opera Festival.
As the curtain rose on the bohemians in their chilly garret, they seemed to be singing from a vast remove, even from my close-in seat. The painter Marcello (James Westman) registered as little more than a low, drab rumble, while the diction of poet Rodolfo (Richard Troxell), though more vivid, drifted in and out of clarity, like a cellphone with shaky reception. When their mates, philosopher Colline (Jonathan Silvia) and musician Schaunard (Michael Weyandt), showed up, the scene took on a busy, frenetic quality that missed the inventiveness of the interplay between Puccini's music and the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
Part of the problem was the orchestra, which was often too loud, and the intricate, detailed scoring came across as if rendered by a blunt instrument. After leading two festival productions in the smaller Ferguson Hall, artistic director Daniel Lipton was working for the first time in the 2,500-seat Morsani Hall, and the balances between stage and pit were out of sync throughout much of the first two acts before intermission. With 51 players, the orchestra was a bit small for a Puccini score, and perhaps the conductor thought he needed to compensate. The singers also seemed to be finding their way in the Morsani acoustic.
Despite its large size, the Straz Center's showcase hall can be a surprisingly intimate space for opera, especially if you have a little perspective on the stage. After intermission I moved from row G on the orchestra level to the front row of the first gallery (virtually empty; attendance Thursday was only 1,171), and my enjoyment of the performance was better from that perch, perhaps because it allowed me to see the orchestra as well as the singers. Lipton, the cast and orchestra players had gotten their act together, as balances and projection and the overall sense of ensemble improved as the evening went along.
Throughout La Boheme, the saving grace was Marianne Fiset as Mimi, who gets the love story under way when she knocks on the door to ask Rodolfo to light her candle. Fiset's innocent, doomed seamstress was already ill when she made her entrance, falling to the floor in front of Marcello's easel, but her lyric soprano carried well, and she was a fetching actor. The relationship between Mimi and Rodolfo really came into focus in Act 3. Their farewell in the pre-dawn wintry blue lighting was heartwrenching.
This is a good-looking production, with an imposing set from New Orleans Opera and traditional costumes. Director Frank van Laecke clearly poured a lot of time and energy into the big Cafe Momus scene, with its children's chorus gathered around toy vendor Parpignol (Jeffrey Hartman). For her wonderful waltz aria, flirty Musetta (Ella Tyran) was bathed in red light and positioned at one end of a diagonal pattern stretching across the stage to include the fuming rivals for her affections, Alcindoro (Peter Strummer) and Marcello.
Westman's painter was a disappointment, his baritone lacking the color needed to give expressiveness and vitality to Marcello's role. In the melancholy finale, Silvia brought excellent warmth to Colline's coat aria. Weyandt's Schaunard was too underpowered to make much impression.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.