From the first garbled bar, conductor Carlo Montanaro made Seattle Opera's opening-night performance of La bohème the speediest I've ever heard, live or recorded. The first place his haste wrought some real havoc was, unfortunately, the end of Act 1: Rodolfo and Mimì's meet-cute, everyone's favorite scene. It's simple in outline—he sings, she sings, they sing, curtain—but no opera composer ever more expertly timed and musically stage-managed a scene than Puccini did this one.
LA BOHEME McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 389-7676, seattleopera.org. $25 and up. Ends March 10.
It was apparent something was wrong as tenor Francesco Demuro ended his solo, "Che gelida manina," and I thought, "That's it?" It felt rushed—not passionate and youthfully eager, which would've been a legit approach to the aria, but perfunctory. Here's a poet telling his life story to a woman he wants to impress; he has to take her (and us) somewhere. The mood needs to expand, the music to breathe. Ditto for soprano Elizabeth Caballero's response, "Si, mi chiamano Mimì," corseted by the crudeness of Montanaro's phrasing, forgoing expressive tempo subtleties in favor of simply slamming on the brakes for every money note. Then came their duet, the hero and heroine, now in love, strolling off the stage together: over before you know it, no magic.
Later, in Act 2, the poor children's choristers who had to try to sing the name "Parpignol" intelligibly at Montanaro's tempo were just out of luck. Also to blame on the conductor were the pit/stage balance issues. Demuro, for example, has a ringing, gracefully carrying voice, but not a big one; more care needs to be taken not to drown him out. Even with a stageful of singers at full throttle, the orchestra dominated.
Caballero proved more convincing in acts 3 and 4 as a Mimì who's lived through heartbreak than as the innocent gamine of the opera's first half. Michael Todd Simpson and Norah Amsellem, as off-again, on-again lovers Marcello and Musetta, provide a few good comic-relief moments, but treat their characters rather broadly and reductively; he's pouty, she's vain. (Also, the vertiginous wobble in Amsellem's high notes probably shouldn't go unmentioned.)
The production's one undeniably effective element is Erhard Rom's set: vintage sepia-toned photographs of Paris blown up as backgrounds and projected on the scrim as act drops. Pretty and bittersweetly nostalgic, they contribute what they can to the romantic atmosphere, but a Bohème that looks better than it sounds has to be counted a misfire.