Just A Touch of Magic: Puccini's La bohème at the Washington National Opera

First, I apologize for the long hiatus in posts. I have not had much opportunity to see live opera since being back at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and in Arlington, Virginia. The conclusion of my schooling did offer a few of the previous scholarly posts. Now, however, being in Washington, D.C., more actual reviews will be forthcoming. I will be seeing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis this weekend and will post on that shortly, as well.

In the meantime, a review of Washington National Opera's La bohème at the Kennedy Center. This was my first time at the Kennedy Center opera house and I was surprised how small it is. All in all, that's really not a bad thing, just surprising for such a key performing space in the United States. I will write my own review, but Anne Midgette's November 2 review in the Washington Post was spot on, so I've included a link here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/at-wno-a-la-boheme-that-gets-the-job-done/2014/11/02/3228d1ee-62b5-11e4-9fdc-d43b053ecb4d_story.html

General information & synopsis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_bohème

La bohème | Giacomo Puccini

Rodolfo: Saimir Pirgu (Nov. 1, 4, 7, 9m, 12, 15m) / Alexey Dolgov (Nov. 2m, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Mimì: Corinne Winters* (Nov. 1, 4, 7, 9m, 12, 15m) / Tatiana Monogarova* (Nov. 2m, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Marcello: John Chest* (Nov. 1, 4, 7, 9m, 12, 15m) / Trevor Scheunemann^ (Nov. 2m, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Musetta: Alyson Cambridge (Nov. 1, 4, 9m, 12, 15m) / Leah Partridge* (Nov. 2m, 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Colline: Joshua Bloom* (Nov. 1, 4, 7, 9m, 12, 15m) / Musa Ngqungwana* (Nov. 2m, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Schaunard: Steven LaBrie* (Nov. 1, 4, 7, 9m, 12, 15m) / Christian Bowers** (Nov. 2m, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15e)
Benoit/Alcindoro: Donato DiStefano

Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance: Fri., Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Cast to be announced.

Conductor: Philippe Auguin
New Production by Jo Davies*
Original Stage Direction: Peter Kazaras*
Set Design: Lee Savage*
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller*
Lighting Design: Bruno Poet*
Choreography: Ben Wright*

* WNO debut
** Current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
^ Former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
______________________________________________________________________________________
Note: I attended the production on November 12th and saw the cast members, with no substitutions, listed for that date.
The most notable thing about this production was, without a doubt, the particular atmosphere it fostered, an outcome of both the design and the rapport between the struggling artists. The production has been updated to post-WWI circumstances, appropriate for the centennial of the war that has been so poignant across the world and particularly in Europe. Nevertheless, La bohème is perhaps not an opera that offers a great deal to work with in the way of up-to-date social commentary and these updates are not heavy-handed, with only the costuming, French and American flags in the Quartier Latin, and Colline's war wound to tell the tale. Otherwise, the crowd scenery and the clothing of the Principals adhered closely to the common washed out palette of the dissolute. The only place this seemed truly out of place was the dancing and choreography generally and throughout "Quando m'en vo" in Café Momus, which felt almost kitschy in it's 1920s tableau.

Importantly, however, pops of color helped to liven the scenes and make it clear that, while the poor are struggling in Paris (whether in 1830 or post-WWI), they are still having a great time with what they have. Also strong was the transition into this crowd-scene, instantaneous and magical, and the Act III snow-and-cherry-blossm scene outside the tavern. Midgette for the Washington Post praised both but felt the latter heavy-handed, metaphorically; I would suggest the magic of falling snow and the soul-touching feeling of the cherry blossoms falling fits with D.C. and the story and, in an opera that is itself emotionally heavy-handed, fit just fine. It is also reminiscent, for those who know, of a similar scene in Yimou Zhang's Hero.

Midgette also comments on the rapport between the artists in Act IV, suggesting it is less trained and out-of-the-moment than it often feels, given that we all know death is just around the door for Mimì. While this is unusually effective, the rapport of the bohemians is so boisterous throughout it almost undermines the bohemian atmosphere itself, and overshadows the somewhat lackluster love affairs of the four principals. While that rapport is important, a somewhat more realistic take that combines poverty, joy in the small things/rapport, and love might have been more effective overall. Nevertheless, the support from Joshua Bloom, Steven LaBrie, and even as the outsider Donato DiStefano was superb both in voice and acting, and left us, as often, wishing we got to hear more from these roles in a star-vehicle piece.
Alyson Cambridge provided a coquettish Musetta, singing with unreserved robustness. Her vocal flagrancy and freedom in the upper range, combined with her magnetic stage presence helped her command her significant time on stage during Act II. This carried into Acts III and IV surprisingly well, lending credence to her conviction to break with Marcello and especially her caring but no less decisive actions to aid Mimì. If this had a drawback, it was in that it was unclear what truly drew her to Marcello. For his part, John Chest seemed the strongest member of the cast. Though his voice was a bit small for the part, particularly in comparison to the other three principals, its rich warmth fit the painter's demeanor as a happy-go-lucky yet sensitive bohemian, lending credence to his interaction with his friends and both his love for and anger at Musetta. A solid presence as an actor helped with this and outweighed even the moments he clearly struggled to keep up with the others in volume.

Corinne Winters brought an interesting mix to the pivotal role of Mimì, with the warmth, depth, and chocolate tones of a more dramatic voice than hers actually is, at least at this point. Though she matched Pirgu fine in volume and managed with no problem over the orchestra, the voice was surprisingly small compared with this tone quality. That said, the entire role was secure and well sung. Where Winters' performance fell flat, though, was in an interpretation of Mimì that seemed almost entirely without spine. Admittedly, the character is sick and eventually dying, but throughout it was hard to believe she loved Rodolfo, wanted to go out, wanted to stay in, was angry with him, wanted to break up with him, wanted to return to him, etc. Saimir Pirgu, another headliner for this cast, did not help in fostering this chemistry, leaving the love between the two, and the central plot line of the opera, flat. He too fit his role as a member of the group of bohemian fellows quite well, but was only occasionally romantic. Vocally, he was surprisingly inconsistent. The middle and lower range was almost always robust, ringing, and, like Winters, almost Spinto-like in quality. But as he ascended into the passaggio he sometimes maintained an impressive transition and at others sounded a bit thin and strained. His top certainly sounded more like that of a Domingo or Bergonzi, there but not wholly pleasing, compared with freer, more lyric voices.
Perhaps inconsistency was the mark of the evening. In her title, Midgette describes this La bohème as one that "gets the job done," and it does. There were tremendous high points, such as the Act III quartet between the lovers, backed by the beautiful set and tremendous orchestral sensitivity. The end of the piece, as always, was touching and Puccini's superb music guided all the lovers back into their rightful emotional places. The transition into Act II helped set the tone that it was truly La bohème. Indeed, Philippe Augin guided the ensemble with a reliably sure and sensitive hand. Yet both the emotions and the singing weaved in and out, particularly for the leading couple. For an upcoming-holiday treat, it was an excellent show that touches on the magic fabric Puccini wove but doesn't quite enchantingly embody it.

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