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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: Hawaii Opera Theatre caps 50th anniversary with 'La Boheme'

Ruth Bingham
Special to the Advertiser

Golden anniversaries merit pausing to take stock: In 50 years, the Hawaii Opera Theatre has delivered 145 productions of 61 operas and musicals by 29 composers.

The details reveal much: Over half of those productions came from just three composers: 32 by Puccini, 25 by Verdi, and 16 by Mozart. In fact, the vast majority (almost 80 percent) were composed by only nine composers: to the three most popular, add Bizet with nine (seven of them "Carmen"), Rossini (eight), Donizetti (seven), Wagner (six), and Gounod and Richard Strauss, both with five.

Even after 400-plus years of history, but perhaps not surprisingly, Italian composers still rule, outnumbering all other nationalities put together at a rate of about three to two.

Scattered among the familiar favorites are gems by Russians, Germans, a Czech and three Americans: Floyd’s "Susannah", Menotti’s "The Last Savage," and Leonard Bernstein’s "Candide."

There are many ways to parse the data, teasing out the preferences of different directors and the company’s growth, and HOT has included a historical summary in this season’s programs to mull over during intermissions.

HOT began with a single-opera “season,” expanding over the years to a three-opera season, plus a musical or operetta some summers. Opera is an expensive proposition even in the best of times, but HOT remains one of the very few arts organizations in Hawaii on solid financial footing despite the economy.

They are obviously doing something right.

Blaisdell Concert Hall is often sold out or packed, productions draw audiences of all ages, and talk of the latest opera slips unexpectedly into every-day conversations – at grocery stores, soccer games, the beach. On Opera for Everyone nights, teenagers whistle at the heroines, boo the villains and cheer the orchestra. Regular-night audiences compare notes on productions they’ve seen, and on University of Hawaii campuses, faculty, staff, and students alike exchange opinions.

HOT is now closing its 50th anniversary season with its ninth production of Puccini’s "La Boheme," the opera it has performed more often than any other – more often than even "Madama Butterfly," which has been so closely identified with the company.

One of the reasons for "La Boheme’s" popularity is that it needs no explanation of plot or style. It is just plain good theater: immediately appealing even to those new to opera, yet complex enough that those already familiar with it hear something new each time.

Directed by Karen Tiller, HOT’s executive director, HOT’s current "La Boheme" is lively, full of capers and horseplay juxtaposed with tempestuous young love and the tragedy of premature death.

The lead couple, Derek Taylor (Rodolfo, the title role) and Olga Chemisheva (Mimi, the frail young woman dying of tuberculosis), suited their roles in looks and manner. Individually, they sounded wonderful, but their voices did not meld into a couple: hers was the more powerful, with a weight and maturity that overbalanced Taylor’s lighter tenor.

The powerhouses of the production were the secondary couple, baritone Etienne Dupuis (Marcello) and soprano Evelyn Pollock (Musetta), whose voices carried easily over the large orchestra with a ringing warmth that labeled them a couple before they even exchanged glances. Both were also excellent, compelling actors, and Pollock, assisted by Tiller’s detailed staging, stole almost every scene she entered.

In the character roles of both Benoit and Alcindoro, Laurence Paxton made a deliciously comic laughingstock, and Leon Williams (Schaunard) and John Marcus Bindel (Colline) added zest, depth, and humor to the foursome of bohemian friends.

Set design, based on realistically detailed backdrops, was effective, eliciting applause as the curtain rose on the snowy scene of Act III.

Conductor Michael Ching of Opera Memphis, who graciously stepped in to cover for an ill Mark Flint, delivered a well-paced performance. The large orchestra occasionally covered singers, particularly in crowd scenes, making it difficult to separate out who was where, but Ching interwove orchestra and singers beautifully, adjusting tempos to allow voices aural space to “breathe” naturally.

These past 50 years have made HOT an integral part of Hawaii’s art scene; may the next 50 be as successful!

"La Boheme" will be performed 4 p.m. tomorrow and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (finale).