From Oakland, drive 40 miles south on 880, an overcrowded, dangerous
highway, paved like hell, and not with good intentions. Then, 10 miles
north of San Jose, hang left on Auto Mall Parkway (ugh!), in search of
Ohlone College. You are now in Fremont, a formerly rural town, now a
mixed industrial-residential city of 200,000, with the largest number
of Afghanistanis in the U.S. Another distinction Fremont has is being
home to America's newest opera company.
But all these introductory factoids fade into the background as you
experience one of the most involving, emotional, entertaining, and
enchanting "La Boheme" performances in years. David Sloss' Fremont Opera
made a debut this weekend that boggled the mind and enraptured the heart.
Sloss - formerly with small, feisty, often excellent West Bay Opera -
has been music director of the Fremont Symphony for almost three decades.
For "Boheme," he put the entire orchestra on the stage of the college's
Smith Center, engaged thrilling young singers from the Bay Area, hired
Jonathon Field to direct a delightful and effective "semi-staged"
performance, and even managed to squeeze the Oakland Symphony Chorus and
Cantabile Youth Singers into the wings, upstage, and probably spaces
that don't even exist.
So much for the boggle part... except for one more: against all
conventional rules of opera, Sloss conducted the orchestra with his back
to the soloists performing in a narrow space downstage, leaving the young
singers without visual cues, using the orchestra as a giant accompanist.
This was a setup that might have worked for a group of seasoned professionals
performing together for a long, long time. It didn't seem to make sense
in this situation.
And now for the rapture: it all did work, splendidly so. There was
balance, clarity, projection, and above all, a solid gestalt of Puccini
at his most lyrical, fervent, abandoned and sweeping - a wonderfully
Italian "Boheme" in Fremont, home of the General Motors/Toyota NUMMI
(New United Motor Manufacturing), and company sponsor Fletcher Jones
Motorcars. The Sunday matinee was so much of an ensemble performance
that one is reluctant to speak of individuals, but it has to be done;
in fact, it's good to be able to report on such promising young talent.
The Mimi was NaGuanda Nobles, winner of Opera San Jose first Irene Dalis
Competition. A tiny young woman, Nobles has a warm, beautiful voice,
with secure, rich high notes. Sounding at times more mezzo than soprano,
she projects the voice well, but not herself, an outstanding talent still
in need of further coaching and experience to make better contact with
the audience. Towering over Nobles was Harold Gray Meers, the tallest
Rodolfo to the smallest Mimi, a tenor with a fine, clear voice, and a
sincere involvement in the drama, although both going out of focus now
Marnie Breckenridge, now apparently the busiest singer around, was the
statuesque and stormy Musetta, with a "big" performance that was a bit
more stagey and less authentic than what she usually delivers. Musetta
must be more than artifice, and I am sure Breckenridge knows that better
than anyone, even if knowledge was not translated into action. Baritone
Jordan Shanahan was the vocally impressive Marcello, with just a bit of
awkwardness in his stage performance, still in need of learning what to
do with his hands. Igor Vieira's high and clear baritone made a fine
And finally, the one voice sure to be heard soon in major opera houses
(especially those headed by wise intendants): Kirk Eichelberger's, as
Colline, a majestic bass, deep and broad, with brilliant colors and
If you must do "semi," be sure to get Field to do the staging.
Without sets, costumes, adequate lighting or even sufficient space,
using only a chair here and some props there, this was a "Boheme"
dramatically clear and clean: few shticks (a good one was the Schaunard
singing his invitation to Cafe Momus to women in the audience), doing
as little as possible, serving the story and the music - bravo!
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