“Social distancing and grand opera do not mix.” So quoth Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, whose company went dark in March 2020 and will remain so until at least September 2021. But twelve hundred miles south of the dormant metropolis of New York, Palm Beach Opera, now approaching its sixtieth-anniversary season, has vaulted into the first rank of American opera companies and attracted considerable international attention as the first company in the pandemic era in North America to forge ahead with a full-length live opera. Rather than wallow in a saison manquée that has witnessed theaters shuttered, orchestras furloughed, and musicians silenced, PBO’s dynamic director David Walker, who assumed his post only last season, engineered “Herculean efforts” to adapt his company’s planned 2020–21 offerings into a workable festival, which was held from February 19 to 27.

It was not an easy undertaking. Amid all the restrictions, Walker had to assemble not only casts, orchestral players, choristers, stage personnel, and administrators, but also a team of medical and risk-management specialists. All told, the production required around two hundred staff, all of whom had to be distanced, masked, and regularly tested. To add another level of difficulty, all this had to be done outside the company’s usual venue, West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Instead, the productions were unfurled in a more capacious space that the opera had never used before, the six-thousand-seat iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre, located, as locals say, “out west,” though it lies scarcely ten miles away from Palm Beach proper.

The Amphitheatre normally plays host to concerts of popular music, but it served well as a makeshift opera house. With a covered roof and open walls, the amount of external noise—wind, crickets, airplanes, souped-up car engines—necessitated amplification. Purists might ordinarily have quailed, but our times are neither pure nor ordinary, and no complaints were heard. The distanced orchestra and chorus, whose members were all stationed the requisite six feet apart from one another, sounded less cohesive than they would have in a standard arrangement, yet there was no unpleasant distortion in the sound. Fewer than one-third of the seats were open for use, with “pods” of two to four seats strategically parceled out and makeshift “boxes” created for VIPs. The balmy air and breezy palm trees created a pleasant ambience and lent an oddly tropical flavor to the sometimes chilly settings of the operas on the program—“Che gelida manina” (“What a frozen little hand”) to the sound of palm fronds rustling has to be a first.

The audience watches La bohème in West Palm Beach, Florida,  on February 19, 2021. Photo: Chandan Khanna.

Palm Beach Opera normally presents three or four productions per year, each performed three times apiece. This season was meant to offer three full productions and a one-off “Discovery Series” performance of a rarely heard work, in this instance Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a setting of the Romeo and Juliet story. That opera will now take the stage in a separate performance planned at the sculpture garden of the Norton Museum of Art for later this month. Of the three main productions scheduled pre-COVID, Puccini’s ubiquitous La bohème has survived along with Mozart’s crowd-pleaser The Magic Flute. A planned production of Bizet’s uncommon but certainly not unknown The Pearl Fishers was replaced by Leoncavallo’s perennial Pagliacci, presented without its usual twin, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Each opera was presented twice in a semi-staged format directed by James Robinson, the artistic director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, who has pioneered some of the few other projects running in the COVID era. A large screen above the proscenium broadcast both the onstage action—noticeably distanced, though generally effective—and the surtitles.

An unexpected boon from the pandemic has been the ability for PBO to recruit a luxurious cast. Virtually all American soloists are now out of work, leaving a broad field of available star singers whose schedules would normally be booked years in advance and who would typically be far beyond the reach of regional opera companies. La bohème kicked off the festival with the tenor Michael Fabiano as the starving poet Rodolfo and the sweet-voiced soprano Latonia Moore as his beloved and sickly Mimì. The stunning Isabel Leonard (a mezzo in this soprano role) and the stentorian baritone Quinn Kelsey performed as the couple Musetta and Marcello, foils to Mimi and Rodolfo, with the talented bass Ryan Speedo Green in the role of the philosopher Colline. I have heard all of them many times before, but never have I seen them radiate such energy and enthusiasm as on the festival’s first evening. These were performers who were obviously thrilled to be in front of an audience again, and they made Bohème, which is usually a pretty routine affair, a revelatory experience. Leonard, who was singing her first Musetta, stole the show with glittering tones and seductive charm.

The same energy carried over into Pagliacci, starring the soprano Ana María Martínez as the faithless wife Nedda and the young tenor Robert Watson as the murderous cuckold Canio. Both sang well, with Watson’s vivid agony portending what will likely be a major career. The baritone Michael Chioldi’s Tonio, a vindictive hunchback who reveals Nedda’s infidelity after she spurns his disgusting advances, was a burly and malevolent presence. Patrick Summers conducted an insightful performance that plumbed the depths of human depravity.

The Magic Flute owed its cohesion to the excellent conducting of David Stern, who paced the opera well. Here, too, the soloists were on a world-class level. Matthew Polenzani has emerged as perhaps the leading Mozartean tenor of our time, and his Tamino endowed the hero’s quest with far-reaching nobility. Janai Brugger, a soprano, sang sweetly as his Pamina. The extraordinary young baritone Joshua Hopkins delivered a solid and well-crafted Papageno, having doubled in the smaller, tragic role of the ill-fated suitor Silvio in Pagliacci. Kathryn Lewek was suitably shrill in the coloratura soprano role of the Queen of the Night, while Peixin Chen was a real discovery in the weighty bass part of the high priest Sarastro.

Alas, the festival could only go on for eight days. The effect will last much longer, and I think it will head the charge in relaunching a Palm Beach arts scene that may well grow into a leading international center of creativity. Sitting in the socially distanced seats of the Amphitheatre, one could have fancied that the planes audible overhead were carrying loads of hopeful New Yorkers seeking new and better lives.

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