Portland Opera Does Puccini Proud

By Susan Larson, Boston Globe

PORTLAND - Two years have elapsed since your correspondent experienced her first spasm of naked envy upon beholding the splendors of this city's newly restored Merrill Auditorium.

She experienced a whole series of such spasms Monday evening as the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre presented its truly lovely production of ''La Boheme.'' This company is no longer a ragtag provincial operation; with this show it has attained a considerably higher artistic standard than anything we have witnessed recently in Boston.

Maestro Bruce Hangen, having whipped his pit orchestra into tiptop shape, led it masterfully through the ceaseless push-pull of Puccini's rubato. Playing was alert, clean, and colorful; solos seemed almost to speak. Every lovely touch of orchestration - the oboe, flute, horns, harp, the bass clarinet, piccolo, the trumpets, and the shimmering veils of string sound - played important parts in the drama.

Each of the three handsome sets, by Portland designer Michael Reidy, drew mad applause every time the curtain rose. Costumes by Gail Csoboth, another Portland artist, made people look good, with the exception of Musetta's Act 2 gown, a shrieking red velvet number trimmed with white fur - Mae West meets Mrs. Santa Claus.

All the singers were vocally and dramatically strong, including the crackerjack chorus and the local talent in the comprimario roles. Baritone Philip Torre, a student in the opera's young artists program two years ago, sang the role of Marcello with winning gusto and serious chops, practically walking off with the show. But Pamela Armstrong's Mimi walked off with your heart.

The woman can sing. She can act, too, but when somebody sings with her whole being as Armstrong does, singing and acting are inseparable. Her arias were incomparable, glowing with passion but grounded in a sweet serenity that gave dimensionality to the impossibly saintly Mimi.

You suddenly saw, in Armstrong's doomed seamstress, a simple soul who knows how to love. When she sang the banal words "Flowers smell nice," floating another ravishing high A, the whole world bloomed for joy. The stage director had Rodolfo intently examining the embroidery ,on her hankie at this sublime moment, making you want to yell out "Honey, he doesn't deserve you."

As Rodolfo, Adam Klein displayed fidgety energy and an exciting tenor, imbued with a natural boyish sweetness and ductility that he did his darndest to choke off in favor of an overly darkened and thickened production. Less Domingo and more Bjoerling in his singing wouldn't hurt.

Klein played Rodolfo as a self-mocking observer, a sort of Jerry Seinfeld whose smart-guy poses must melt under the warmth of Mimi's love. Except they didn't. Commitment. Time came and went in the final acts; Rodolfo held himself aloof from his beloved when Puccini was practically screaming for him to fall into her embrace. What was the director thinking?

Jan Grissom was outrageous as Musetta; perhaps she felt she had to outgun that raucous red costume. She committed much squealing and yelping in the middle acts, but settled down to sing her waltz with style and charm. Both bass Henry Runey and baritone Constantinos Yiannoudes sounded terrific and created resonant characters out of not very much material.

Torre just lets his gorgeous, torrential sound fall out of him, honestly without affectation. His full-hearted singing, like Armstrong's, is all Puccini requires to find the emotional center of this sweet opera.

Quibbles aside, Portland has done a superb job top to bottom; the audience, knowing it had witnessed something extraordinary, stood in salute.

This story ran on page C04 of the Boston Globe on 07/28/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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