Giacomo Puccini’s abiding tale of tragic love proved its unassailable endurance as the Washington National Opera’s restrained, ashen La bohème received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the Kennedy Center on opening night.
Puccini’s story of starving artists negotiating the perils of love and poverty in bohemian Paris is perhaps the world’s most popular opera. The lead characters are literally searching for light in the dark, when Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu), a struggling poet, chances upon Mimi (Corinne Winters), a tender seamstress, in his garret apartment in Act 1.
From there, the ups and downs of their brief romance, shared among the frustrations and joys of their small circle of friends, propels the story through its tight four-act structure to its pitiable, uncompromising end brought on by illness.
Directed by Peter Kazaras in his WNO debut, this production, already an intimate opera (except for the standout Act II at the Café Momus) is muted to a fault, from the drab grey design elements to the leaden staging and underwhelming singing, which often fell short to the orchestration. But for the ensemble conviviality in Act II, and a design gesture with spring blooms in Act III, the entire production feels strangely flat, as pallid and wan as Mimi as she wastes away.
If ardor lacks between the leads, the fraternity between the men does emerge, as does the tempestuous friction between second leads Marcello (John Chest) and Musetta (Alyson Cambridge).
Even if this Bohème is not one for the ages, enthusiasts still have Puccini’s music to enjoy, with its beloved melodies and expressive harmonies ably conducted by WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin.
And the cast—many of them making their WNO debuts—were requisitely youthful and charming.
Winters, a soprano acclaimed for her portrayal of Violetta in Wolf Trap Opera Company’s La traviata last year, played Mimi timid and sweet. Her introductory aria, “Mi chiamano Mimi” (They call me Mimi) was delightful, and her moonlit duet with Pirgu “O soave fanciulla” (O lovely girl) splendid. Her lamentable predicament was captured poignantly in Act III’s “Donde lieta usci” (From here she happily left.)
Pirgu gave a spirited performance as the love-torn poet Rodolfo, even if the chemistry with Winters was not always present, and his tenor voice was nicely highlighted in Act I’s “Che gelida manina” (What a cold little hand), and Act III’s “Addio, dolce svegliare” (Farewell, sweet love).
Closes November 15, 2014
Washington National Opera at
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 25-minute intermission
Tickets: $25 – $310
Chest imbued Marcello with an emotional edge, making a fine balance to Cambridge’s theatrical Musetta. Donato DiStefano delivered finely textured comedic performances in his brief scenes as the grizzled landlord Benoit and pompous Alcindoro.
Lighting designer Bruno Poet’s painterly tableaus and Lee Savage’s ingenious set designs steal the show, most wonderfully when Act 1’s bleak attic set opens up and transforms into Act II’s vibrant Christmas scene on the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter. The crowd scene in front of the Momus maxes the Opera House stage with merriment, song and dance, including the talents of the WNO Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Even the second and third floor windows are cleverly decked out with supernumeraries attending to Christmas trees and family dinners while the main action proceeds below. The stage is so crowded in fact, that some of the group movements don’t quite have the litheness they should.
Oh and don’t be surprised if you didn’t notice that the setting has been updated to just after the First World War; nothing has been added by this choice, except to remind one that the story of youth in love really is timeless.
La bohème. Music by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Based on the novel Scenes de la vie de boheme by Henry Murger. Production conceived by Jo Davies. Directed by Peter Kazaras. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Corinne Winters, Saimir Pirgu, John Chest, Alyson Cambridge, Joshua Bloom, Steven LaBrie and Donato DiStefano. Set design: Lee Savage. Costume design: Jennifer Moeller. Lighting design: Bruno Poet. Choreographer: Ben Wright. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
La boehme runs for 10 more performances, with two alternate casts: Nov. 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 13, plus two performances on November 15. The special Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist performance is November 14. Visit WNO’s website for complete production details and casting information.
Closes Nov 15
Roy Maurer . DCTheatreScene Giacomo Puccini’s abiding tale of tragic love proved its unassailable endurance as the Washington National Opera’s restrained, ashen La bohème received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the Kennedy Center on opening night.
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly This is one Boheme that will please every crowd.
Barbara Trainin Blank . MDTheatreGuide one has to have a heart of stone not to cry at least a little at the death of Mimi,
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner has Puccini’s natural emotional and musical will rolling over everything, Italian temperament warming up the cold rooms, and freezing hands and grieving hearts.
Heather Nadolny . BroadwayWorld this is a production that can resonate with everyone.
Jessica Vaughan . DCMetroTheaterArts truly gorgeous to behold and this classic love affair has never been in better hands.