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Margo Kline: Opera Santa Barbara Sings of Love, Youth with ‘La Boheme’

The polished and lyrical production showed how far it has come as a professional company

Opera Santa Barbara opened its 2011-12 season over the weekend at The Granada Theatre with a sumptuous production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme, that paean to youth and lost love.

This polished and lyrical production showed how far Opera Santa Barbara has come as a professional company. The production originated with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis; on Sunday afternoon, a nearly full house gave applause and bravos to the singers, the orchestra and conductor and all the other creative talents that joined to make it memorable.

After his highly successful Manon Lescaut, Puccini wanted to compose an opera reflecting “modern” life” at the end of the 19th century. The result was La Boheme, based on Henri Murger’s 1841 novel, Scenes de la vie de boheme, as well as the composer’s fond memories of his own youthful wild oats.

As star-crossed lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, soprano Rebecca Davis and tenor Christopher Bengochea, respectively, were passionate and poignant. Davis made her Carnegie Hall debut singing Franz Schubert’s Mass in G and has performed as both Mimi and Musetta in opera companies across the United States. Bengochea is also a rising star, having been praised by the Chicago Tribune for his “command of Italianate style along with ringing top notes and a smooth legato.”

Jan Cornelius loaned her silvery soprano to the role of that eternal minx Musetta, and her lover Marcelo was portrayed by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie. Cornelius has sung roles including Violetta in La Traviata and Micaela in Carmen. MacKenzie made his Metropolitan Opera debut last season in New York, appearing in Carmen and Rigoletto.

Supporting roles were solidly covered by Romanian bass Gabriel Vamvulescu, baritone Steven Labrie and bass Jess Merlin. Dean Williamson conducted the live orchestra, and Brad Dalton was the stage director.

As if it needed doing, this production showed again why La Boheme is cherished by opera lovers. It was a resounding start to the remainder of Opera Santa Barbara’s season, which will include Wolfgang Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Orfeo et Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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