Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare rose to prominence as Principal Trombone for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Here in the Flower City, he has made a conscious effort to perform operatic works in their entirety. On Thursday, when the RPO performed Giacomo Puccini's beloved "La Bohème," the result was unsettled at first, but ultimately triumphant.
Stare's initial tempo was lively but slightly rushed, as if the conductor and orchestra were settling into a groove. Early on, the balance between the singers and the orchestra was also off. The vocalists were simply overpowered, though this was the only noticeable occurrence of such inequality.
For all of Puccini's languid, swooning vocal melodies, the harmonic underpinnings and rhythmic flourishes provided by the orchestra were the lifeblood of the performance. The ensemble's sound was warm and exuberant throughout the opera. In particular, the execution of Puccini's signature symphonic swells was alluring.
As Rodolfo, tenor Harold Meers' "Chegelidamanina" was satisfactory -- like hearing a familiar story told faithfully -- even if it lacked flair. Soprano Inna Dukach's first aria, "Si, mi chiamanoMimì," was decidedly more compelling. Dukach employed a tender vibrato that was most stunning during quieter passages that required great control in her higher range.
Soprano Jacqueline Echols's entrance in Act II as Musetta was sufficiently piquant, as evidenced during the aria "Quandom'envo'." The singer's triumph here was her ability to take this seemingly superficial ode to Musetta's powers of seduction and turn it into a surprisingly vulnerable and sweet moment. Of all the singers, baritone Alexander Elliott was especially exquisite, his suave Marcello brimming with strength and vitality.
"La Bohème" is a bittersweet paean to the impermanence of love and life. Earnest, shortsighted characters sing unflappable melodies that are equal parts ecstasy and heartbreak. If I had forgotten why this opera continues to be so popular, more than 120 years after its creation, the RPO's performance was a reminder. The music was absolutely sumptuous -- as full and vivid in orchestral color as I've heard from Stare and company all season.