The life of an aspiring opera singer is a precarious one. After completing conservatory training, the singer ideally sets out to audition for roles with the intention of setting the world ablaze with his or her artistry. But oftentimes a 22-year-old is too green to land a job with an opera company that spends perhaps $1 million per production and can’t afford to take a chance on untested talent. For that reason, most conservatory graduates initially seek out training programs for emerging professionals, such as Atlanta’s Capitol City Opera Company.
The company was founded 30 years ago and hires Atlanta-based singers for both its main stage and outreach endeavors to schools and elsewhere. It offers lighter repertoire and opera cabaret throughout the season, as well as its signature event, “Dinner and a Diva” at Petite Auberge in Toco Hills. It operates on a shoestring budget in order to fulfill its mission: to nurture young singers and honor them with a paycheck for their work.
Last weekend the Capitol City Opera staged Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. With “Bohème,” his fourth opera, first performed in 1896, Puccini mastered something that had eluded him 10 years earlier with his “Le Villi.” He depicted a troupe of young, struggling artists in Paris who exhibited a sentimentality with which the audience could identify. He dispensed with supernatural subject matter and overblown displays of emotion.
Accordingly, Capitol City Artistic Director Michael Nutter double-cast the show and matched Puccini’s economy with simplicity of stage direction, scenery and instrumentation. The well-rounded cast of singers was accompanied by string quartet and piano, conducted by Michael Giel. Rather than sounding sparse, the small ensemble was aesthetically satisfying and well suited to the young singers.
Amanda Smolek was smartly cast; she conveyed a sympathetic Mimí and displayed both the stamina and vocal warmth to pull off such a challenging lyric role. Her Rodolfo, Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald, possesses a tenor voice with metallic overtones, but the duo sang pleasantly together throughout. Elisabeth Slaten, a recent graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, is a fine singing actress and performed Musetta with aplomb. Special mention must be made of Jinho Park, who expertly sang the role of the painter Marcello. Park is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and makes his living as a choral conductor here in Atlanta; he was clearly the most seasoned artist in the cast.
The ensemble hit its stride in the final act, when the contrast between comedy and tragedy is most starkly juxtaposed. Colline (the melodramatic Iván Segovia) and Schaunard (baritone Jonathan L.B. Spuhler) jousted with mops and brooms while Rodolfo snatched away from Marcello his prized keepsake, a red lace scarf previously worn by his former lover, Musetta. The choreography couldn’t have been more precisely executed, leaving the audience in stitches, and wholly unprepared for Mimí’s final entrance and subsequent quiet death.