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Review: Arias in an arena parking lot? San Diego Opera's drive-in 'La bohème' a bold, gear-shifting turn

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 10/25/2020 George Varga
a group of people on a stage in front of a building: San Diego Opera returned Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a drive-in production of "La bohème" in the parking lot of Pechanga Arena San Diego. It follows the English National Opera's September drive-in production of "La bohème" in London. (Courtesy San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune San Diego Opera returned Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a drive-in production of "La bohème" in the parking lot of Pechanga Arena San Diego. It follows the English National Opera's September drive-in production of "La bohème" in London. (Courtesy San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel)

On Saturday night, as the Tampa Bay Blue Jays scored an improbably unique victory in the fourth game of the 2020 World Series, the San Diego Opera scored an even more improbably unique victory with its game-changing production of Puccini's "La bohème."

How unique? Let us count the ways for this bold, gear-shifting production, which will be staged again Tuesday, Friday and next Sunday.

Held in the northern section of the parking lot at Pechanga Arena San Diego, it is the first drive-in opera to be staged in the company's 55-year-old history.

It is also the first safe, socially distanced opera in the show-must-go-on company's history. Sadly, that move was dictated by the still-surging coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered concert halls and theaters that, some experts predict, may not reopen until 2022.

Accordingly, this drive-in iteration of "La bohème" is also the first here at which the four video screens to either side of the stage flashed the message: "Honk if you're ready for some opera!" Or, to be more accurate, honk with discretion, since attendees were asked to blast their horns only at the end of arias and at the conclusion of the 90-minute performance itself, which was carefully directed with "less is more" aesthetics by Keturah Stickann.

While the seven gifted singers and the trimmed-down, 24-member edition of the San Diego Symphony all sang and played live, the music could only be heard — in stereo, via a special FM frequency — on the car radios of the 450 attendees at Saturday's sold-out opening performance.

a man sitting on a table: San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." Tenor Joshua Guerrero is Rodolfo in San Diego Opera's drive-in "La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) © (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." Tenor Joshua Guerrero is Rodolfo in San Diego Opera's drive-in "La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel)

This, in turn, led to a friendly pre-recorded suggestion from tenor Joshua Guerrero, who sang the lead role of Rodolfo with admirable verve. "Don't," he cautioned the audience, "burn out your batteries."

There was no outdoor sound system, unlike at the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra drive-in concert series, which concluded Saturday night at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and has been cited by San Diego Opera Director David Bennett as a key inspiration for his company's audacious new production.

The absence of an outdoor sound system meant that anyone who left their vehicle Saturday to walk to portable restrooms alongside the arena heard almost nothing, beyond cars whizzing by on nearby Interstate 8 or a periodic siren.

The decision to forego a sound system was an astute one. It allowed veteran sound designer Ross Goldman and his crew to expertly craft a crisp audio mix that nicely balanced the singers and the orchestra, which was sensitively led by San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare, who was making his San Diego Opera conducting debut.

That put the focus firmly on the music itself. For most people not parked in close proximity to the stage, the performances were best viewed on the video screens, which captured the action on stage and provided the printed English translation for the lyrics.

All of the seven singers were equipped with two headset microphones each — the extras serving as backup in case of any malfunctions. Performing under a 67-degree night sky, in a parking lot that has no acoustics to speak of, the charismatic Guerrero and his fellow vocalists performed with impressive aplomb under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Their passion for their craft was palpable in a production that was a much a technical and logistical triumph as an artistic one. Because of the pandemic, the seven singers had to largely maintain a distance of 15 feet from each other on the 64-foot-wide stage.

Ana Maria Martinez sitting on a bench: San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." Tenor Joshua Guerrero is Rodolfo and soprano Ana Maria Martinez is Mimi in San Diego Opera's drive-in La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) © (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." Tenor Joshua Guerrero is Rodolfo and soprano Ana Maria Martinez is Mimi in San Diego Opera's drive-in La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel)

This separation resulted in a striking loss of the visual intimacy one might expect in an indoor theater setting. But at a time of worldwide pandemic, the distance added to the pathos of "La bohème's" storyline, which culminates in the death of Rodolfo's paramour, Mimi, who succumbs to untreatable tuberculosis. When Rodolfo sings that he will warm her hands in his, from 15 feet away and unable to come any closer, the poignancy is unmistakable.

That's not the only example of new resonance being injected into an opera that debuted in 1896 in Turin, Italy. Soon after the opening of this four-act production, one of Rodolfo's male friends, Colline, sings: "The apocalypse approaches." It's a line that, depending on your political leanings, could refer to the pandemic, the results of the pending presidential election, or both.

The role of Mimi was handled with poise and polish by Ana Maria Martinez, whose supple voice grew stronger with each aria she delivered. The supple baritone of Alexander Birch Elliott was a consistent highlight, while soprano Andrea Carroll gave the flamboyant Musetta just the right blend of flair and, ultimately, regret.

How much longer drive-in musical events will be with us remains to be seen, but San Diego Opera is wasting no time. After this production of “La bohème” concludes next Sunday, the company will begin gearing up for its December production of "All Is Calm" at the Pechanga Arena parking lot.

"La bohème”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and next Sunday

Where: Pechanga Arena San Diego parking lot, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., San Diego

Tickets: $200 per carload; $300 for priority parking

Online: sdopera.org

a group of people standing on a stage: San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) © (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel) San Diego Opera came back with live performances on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, with a production of "La bohème." (Courtesy of San Diego Opera / Photo by Karli Cadel)

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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