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December 6, 2010

A night with 'Boheme' and thoughts of Baltimore's operatic future

Baltimore's operatic limbo continues. Since the pathetic demise of the Baltimore Opera Company, some fans of the art form have had to content themselves with a diverse group of smaller-scale companies, some already established, some brand new -- like Baltimore Concert Opera, which presented two sold-out performances of "La Boheme" over the weekend at the Engineers Club.

It has been interesting to see all the options available and the way the public has (or has not) embraced them. It will be even more interesting to see what happens when the most BOC-like prospect on the horizon -- Lyric Opera Baltimore -- makes its debut next fall. (I mean BOC-like in terms of production size, of course; if it turns out to be BOC-like in how it's run, heaven help 'em.)

I guess, for me (and it's always all about me, as you know), the important thing is not so much where opera is performed, or even what size the performing forces or the venues are. Sure, I do enjoy the full sets-costumes-and-orchestra approach, but what counts is, simply, the artistic quality. Easy to say, I know; not so easy to guarantee.

I understand well how Baltimore's opera entities must struggle for each dollar. And I appreciate how even pared down stagings, modified touring shows and just plain concert versions can all be expensive to present, challenging to cast. But I still desire -- all right, I guess I expect -- a solid musical experience every time. I want to hear singers who sound thoroughly at home in their roles, demonstrating a combination of tonal solidity (tonal beauty would be nice, too), technical security and enough personality to make you believe and feel what they're singing.

I've been to some bare-bones, minuscule-budget performances around here that featured a lot of singers who delivered these qualities. But I've also been to

nicely-appointed, decently funded productions that had major shortcomings in the vocal department.

I've heard performances with persuasive artists onstage, but strikingly inadequate ones in the pit. I've been to operas that measured up quite strongly in the case of principal roles, but fell off sharply with supporting ones or with the chorus.

I've heard concert performances with only piano accompaniment that sounded better than some orchestra-backed ones. I've also heard concert performances with only piano accompaniment when the pianist made you miss the orchestra terribly.

Needless to say, finding a thoroughly satisfying opera experience can be as elusive in New York or Milan or London as it is locally, all things being relative. There are always variables, always allowances to be made. I don't expect life-changers every night. But I wouldn't mind hearing from Baltimore's operatic enterprises more consistency, more talent.

Too often lately, I've detected whiffs of provincialism in the air, and no amount of applause and cheers from the audience can quite dissipate it.

It's not that I don't find anything to enjoy -- I almost always do -- but I usually walk out thinking more about what was missing. We get a lot of OK around here, not a lot of distinctiveness.

But I digress. You were wondering about Baltimore Concert Opera's "Boheme." To tell the truth, I almost bailed at intermission Friday night, given the uneven results up to that point. But the performance gained in effectiveness as it progressed, with an especially effective last act.

By then, soprano Suzanne Woods, as Mimi, was producing a warmer, slightly creamier tone; earlier, top notes were effortful (her offstage one at the end of Act 1 was especially problematic, as was Pickle's for that matter). The soprano's phrasing, which had been thoughtful from the start, gained in sensitively. John Pickle did very stylish work as Rodolfo, particularly at soft dynamics, when his voice revealed an affecting warmth.

As Marcello, Ron Lloyd, too, was at his most appealing when focusing on soft nuance; otherwise, there was little color or weight in the tone. Penelope Shumate, a stereotypically saucy Musetta, sounded rather brittle. David Cushing sang securely and expresisvely as Colline. Jason Widney (Schaunard) and Stephen Eisenhard (Alcindoro/Benoit) completed the cast. The chorus and Maryland Boy Choir made more or less solid efforts.

Anthony Barrese's conducting was notable for the breadth he allowed; nothing was hurried. James Harp was his usual reliable, dynamic self at the piano.

There was a lot of animated acting going on throughout the performance, so much so that it seemed a pity any of the singers ever needed to glance at a music stand.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (1)


A large professional company in residence at the Lyric Opera House once again will be great to see -- however, the vibrant work I've seen by Opera Vivente, Baltimore Concert Opera and Peabody Opera hardly feels like operatic limbo!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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