I was fortunate to find myself in San Luis Obispo last weekend for several reasons, including a chance to celebrate the 100th anniversary of student media at Cal Poly (where many years ago I edited the school newspaper).
I also got to see a production by Opera San Luis Obispo for the first time.
At “La Boheme,” I was impressed with much of the singing, the design of the show and the strong orchestra. It was also my first time to see a production in the beautiful 1,289 seat San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus. Wow. It’s beautiful.
I’ve become familiar with Opera San Luis Obispo thanks to a collaboration between Brian Asher Alhadeff, its artistic director, and Fresno-based California Opera. Alhadeff conducted the orchestra for August’s Cal Opera production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
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The collaboration continued with “La Boheme.” Richard Adamson, California Opera’s technical director (and also a Fresno-area actor), designed the sets for “La Boheme” first for Golden Gate Opera, and those sets were also used in San Luis Obispo. (Isn’t it great to see cooperation and economies of scale between regional arts organizations? It makes a lot of sense.)
Overall, the San Luis Obispo production was polished and self-assured, with an air of sophistication I expect from larger opera companies. Adamson’s traditional Parisian sets felt festive and substantial, Randon Pool’s costumes were hearty “La Boheme” fare, and I was quite impressed with Nathan Deack’s speckled, painterly lighting design.
Among the principals, Nathan Granner was a strong and believable Rodolfo, Jennie Litster a saucy Musetta and John Viscardi a standout Marcello. Katharine Gunnink disappointed as Mimi, with muddled vocals and frustrating pitch problems. (I also thought her makeup design too gaudy.)
While director Heather Mathews delivered a brisk pace and some nice staging in the second act’s big crowd scene, some of the choreography (by Andrew Silvaggio) felt awkward and distracting, particularly in a moment when a group of dancers encircled Musetta. But the boy soldiers, with their gymnastic pomp and impressive precision, were a highlight. And I enjoyed the general enthusiasm and spirit of the opera chorus. It felt as if they were happy to be up there on stage, and that really translated from the audience.
Alhadeff prides himself on his “grand opera” approach to productions, and it was fun to see local dancers and a children’s choir enliven the proceedings. (He talked about his grand outlook on things in a recent story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.)
Another thing that impressed me: the quite fine orchestra, conducted by Alhadeff, which also rarely drowned out any of the principals.
I’ll offer some more praise, too, for the beautiful Performing Arts Center. I love the intimate feel of its orchestra seats and the soaring feel of its several levels of horseshoe-shaped tiers. It reminds me of a “mini” Metropolitan Opera House. When I was a Cal Poly student, this building was just a dream. To see it completed is a pleasure.
It’s also great to see the collaboration process between Opera San Luis Obispo and California Opera continue. In October 2017, Adamson and Cal Opera artistic director Edna Garabedian will co-direct “Madama Butterfly.” I hope I can be there.