Ash Lawn Opera: A Straightforward, Enchanting Bohème

There's something about the music of Puccini, and perhaps La bohème in particular, which naturally and yet almost manipulatively captures both a sense of place and also the fluttering emotions of humanity. Nowhere were these elements more apparent than at Ash Lawn Opera's bohème this past Wednesday, July 17th in Charlottesville, VA. Ash Lawn is a a small company, putting on just two shows in the summer (this year's second show is Carousel). Nonetheless, Ash Lawn sports a young artist program, an apprentice program, and seemingly robust successes in its performances.

While it's true that Ash Lawn chose (out of necessity due to the size of the Paramount Theatre) to essentially cut the orchestra in half, the piece maintained its artistic integrity. Generally strong principles, a functionally straightforward set and costume design updated to 1896 from the original 1840s time period, and strong conducting helped bring together a performance that focused on what matters: the lives of the bohemians and the tragedy that befalls them.

La bohème | Giacomo Puccini
Conductor | Steven Jarvi
Stage Director | Daniel Rigazzi
Assistant Conductor | Joseph Hodge
Assistant Stage Director |
Scenic Designer | John Pollard
Lighting Designer | Jeff Bruckerhoff
Costume Design | Leslie Bernstein
Hair/Make-Up Designer | Karman Boisset

Mimì | Maria D'Amato
Rodolfo | Christopher Bengochea
Musetta | Monica Yunus
Marcello | Levi Hernandez
Schaunard | Sidney Outlaw
Colline | Tyler Simpson
Benoît/Alcindoro | Dan Stern
Parpignol | Jonathan D. Morales
Toll-Gate Officer | Seung-hyeon Baek
Sergeant | Zack Rabin

The set design provided by John Pollard offered a bohemian feel appropriate both for the subject of the opera and also the size of the house in which it was offered. The first and fourth act design featured a sparsely populated room with the necessary elements of a rustic table with chairs, an imposing yet small stove with a tall stovepipe, and a turn of the century style couch. The entire apartment was set atop a platform designed to look like wooden floorboards. The lighting for this, provided by Jeff Bruckerhoff, was interesting, soft and lush in the first act and almost glaringly white in the fourth when the inclination might almost be to do the opposite (with the exception of the loss of the key in the first act). The decision highlighted the romance of Act I, however, while also playing into the joy, and then the stark horror, of act IV. In between, Act II retained the floor platform and removed the back wall and accoutrements of act I, drawing on modern, more open stage concepts and filling in the space with people and light, rather than a set. Here Ash Lawn's casting should be commended; the inclusion of the children's and adult choruses and total number of bodies on stage truly added to the feel of the opera overall. Act III was a dark, entirely exterior scene cleverly managed with just a wall with a door, a gate, and some rocks out on the stage. For its cleverness and shadowed lighting, however, the setting offered few options to play with and even the gate did not make sense. This forced the singers off the platform in order to form interest. This problem was evident throughout, with the division between on-platform singing and off-platform singing seemingly happenstance.

Nevertheless, the directorial acumen of Daniel Rigazzi should be praised. Use of the stage was varied and interesting and entrances from and exits into the house, for instance for the aggregation of the crowd or Musetta's departure atop the shoulders of two men, respectively, were effective. More than anything else, however, it was the sense of the situation that Rigazzi managed to capture. As the friends joked and played throughout the piece, ruing their circumstances with a sort of youthful glee, it was easy to share their sense that, despite their poverty and even sickness, they were seizing life and enjoying every moment of it. He effectively employed this mood both at the beginning of Act I (and at the end as far as love, rather than love of fun, goes), in Act II, and at the beginning of Act IV. This element was so essential because it acted as a foil and dramatized the moments of unhappiness and tension, which even in themselves had a sense of youthful presence.

Leslie Bernstein's costuming was subtle, with the exception of Musetta's more appropriately garish garb, and fitting with the time. There was nothing that struck as particularly remarkable, but that was exactly the point - the glance is drawn to Musetta when she's supposed to be eliciting exactly that response, but otherwise, we are given characters sheathed in dress perfect for 1896 and that let us focus on what matters: the characters themselves.

Maria D'Amato's Mimì was strong both in sung artistry and acting. D'Amato possess a fine voice with a pleasant tone. It is neither a voice of unusual vibrancy nor notable depth, however, and might not appeal to lovers of either or both of those qualities. Indeed, it also was likely aided by the smaller size of the orchestra. D'Amato's true strength, however, was her ability to shape phrases and utilize the voice. The effects of pianissimi and vocal shading - harsher at some points and lighter at others, to convey Mimì's myraid thoughts and feelings, was quite effective. Above even this, however, if resultant from her singing, was her ability to embody the character. She exhibited Mimì's simple innocence and her joy in the simple pleasures of life, whether flowers or the joy of true love. Nevertheless, she gave Mimì a coy playfulness that refrained from a "goody two-shoes" interpretation, which, though often employed, seems antithetical to the bohemian romance. Truly, D'Amato's Mimì was another artist fit for the apartment: her love of flowers, love of beauty, insight into life, and love of Rodolfo all exhibited the joie d'vivre apparent throughout the show. Mixed with this, a sense of simple, resigned despair was evocative.

Christopher Bengochea's Rodolfo showed promise but ultimately felt somewhat unappealing. Both his singing, through pianissimo moments, and acting effectively portrayed the sort of tenderness ultimately necessary for Rodolfo, despite his piquant jealousy. Despite, the voice felt worn and a bit forced at times, especially in the upper ranges. It was almost spoken in the lower ranges (a technical reality for most tenors singing well, but lacking some of the polish usually put on that range nonetheless) and then a bit strained in the upper. Still, Bengochea did manage to put enough gloss that there was no yelling or shouting, just a strained face and a reliance on squillando vowels not always that close to the one in the word. His acting felt perhaps similar in some ways. He was less believable than his compatriots in the apartment and his feelings about Mimì were somehow too cavalier and less internalized. He did not undermine the show, but definitely felt weaker and more aged when compared against the rest of the cast.

Levi Hernandez stood out as a superb talent. Remarkably similar in visage to Bengochea, he possessed a contrasting baritone voice with plenty of ring, wrapped in velvet. Among the singers he felt like he would have been most suited to a full orchestra, had there been one. Marcello's love story lacks the air of romance associated with that of Rodolfo but is nevertheless deep. Levi brought this out unusually well. He was bolder and more excitable than Rodolfo when with the friends, acting as a leader of sorts, and when with Musetta he presented a more rough-and-tumble lover. In the end, however, his care for Mimì, for Rodolfo, and ultimately his deep, deep love for Musetta were clear.

Monica Yunus, in the role of Musetta, complimented Hernandez with her supple, youthful voice. The tint of Yunus' voice was intriguing in that it possessed not the smokiness of the mezzo-soprano nor the rich headiness of a dramatic soprano, but nonetheless had a rich scuro to match the vibrancy of the voice. Her vocal performance, like Hernandez's was the most roundly secure and consistent throughout the opera. Her acting was perhaps more controversial. Musetta is the most easily over-acted character because the character herself is over-acting, creating a fine line to toe. My opinion was that Yunus stepped just a bit across the line, overplaying Musetta's showboat lifestyle and underplaying her emotional qualities. It is a fine line, however, and others may not have felt the same.

Sidney Outlaw, Tyler Simpson, and Dan Stern produced admirable supporting performances as Schaunard, Colline, and Benoît & Alcindoro, respectively. The former two parts must be differentiated so as not to be too similar, and Outlaw and Simpson did well in this regard, with Outlaw generating a sense of flamboyance and Simpson a more sober character. Both sang well and added, once again, to the feel of the bohemian world. Stern's character singing and acting was very fitting and felt perfect in the roles for which he was cast.

Finally,  Steven Jarvi, aided by Joseph Hodge, handled the reduced orchestra well. They managed to dovetail what might have been a problematical issue of balance. The singers were always the focus, except when the orchestra played on its own, and no fighting ever occurred. Despite, both Jarvi and Hodge exhibited highly emotional styles of conducting backed by technical finesse. These factors combined with all the other elements to render a performance of La bohème that was charming in its character while also touching in its simplicity.

As a closing note, I quite enjoyed this performance of La bohème. Like any show, it was not perfect, but I was quite emotionally moved by it (which is, of course, in part due to Puccini's skill with melody and emotion). I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in and help with the staging process both for a young artist performance and also for the main production. I am thankful to the stage crew at Ash Lawn and Laura Krause in particular for this opportunity. They ran a clean show and it was fun to work with them. I wish the company and the young artists the best of luck. I hope this review has done them and the performance justice and also remained fair. It was a touching show.


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