‘La Bohème’ at Virginia Opera at the GMU Center for the Arts

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La Bohème takes place in winter, between Christmas Eve and February. Director Kyle Lang has set the Virgina Opera’s current production in the year 1939-40, World War II, after the fall of Poland and before the invasion of France – a phase of the conflict known as the “Phony War.” Paris is Paris, and the relocation in time comes off without a hitch. The change is not played up – we do not hear or see much of the war outside the program notes – but it works, and is a nice touch. The added sense of threat and terror especially resonates today, given the tragic headlines out of the city.

Rudolfo (Jason Slayden) and Mimi (Elaine Alvarez). Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Rudolfo (Jason Slayden) and Mimi (Elaine Alvarez). Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Puccini’s opera is a love story. It is romantic to the core, but does not overindulge in romanticization. Neither the life of the starving artist nor the affairs of young lovers are painted in rosy colors. What does come through is the frustration and desperation of both – along with the warm glow of hope. This is a tender work.

Mimi (Elaine Alvarez), a seamstress dying of tuberculosis and otherwise barely scraping by, enters Rudolfo’s life when she knocks on his apartment door to get her candle relit. The candle has been blown out by a draft on the stairs. Rudolfo (Jason Slayden) is a poet whose verse drama has just this day been fed, page by page, into the stove, to keep a little warmth and a small fire going. The one who did the feeding is Marcello (Edward Parks), a young painter, Rudopho’s flat-mate. Marcello is in an on-again, off-again relationship with the flirty Musetta (Zulimar López-Hernández), who makes her glorious entrance in scene two.

The plot is poignant, sad, but good-humored and often fun. The deep – or at least intense – romantic feelings are provided by Rudolpho and Mimi, the lighter side of love and life by Marcello, Musetta, and a cast of fun, if minor, side characters.

Puccini’s music is often described as soaring; it is hard to think of a better word to describe the swellings forth of sound and feeling, by which it sweeps and beats and seems destined to fly. It ranges – or rather swings – to and fro between dramatic melodies and passages of heart-stopping beauty. The score moves along with grace and ease; here Conductor Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra provide a swift, winning interpretation.

Set Designer Erhard Rom and lighting designer Driscoll Otto have produced a setting that is by turns stark and colorful, and everywhere evokes moods and the time period, as do the costumes, wigs, and makeup, by James P. McGough.

The singing is divided between a supporting cast, and two choruses (a children’s chorus and an adult one), on the one hand, and the two pairs of young lovers on the other. The choruses come onstage to form a crowd at the street café in scene two.

Zuly López, Kelly Glyptis, and Jake Gardner. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Zuly López, Kelly Glyptis, and Jake Gardner. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The standout supporting performance was Jake Gardner as the crusty and conceited old landlord, Benoit.

The main roles are excellently cast – the singing is beautiful, dramatic, and the characterizations just, consistent, and restrained.

Although Marcello and Musetta make a fun pair, they are more foils for Rudolfo and Mimi than an active couple. Parks’ Marcello is most memorable as the discussion partner, goad, and sounding board of Rudolfo – a strong performance. Parks’ Marcello is by no means an inferior partner.

Zulimar López-Hernández brings a good deal of verve to the role of Musetta.  Her song “Quando me ‘n vo soletta per la via” (As through the streets I wander onward merrily) at the Café Momus immediately establishes the character, a provides a dash of fun to a show that is in many places heartbreaking.

Jacob Slayden’s Rudolfo is the archetypal struggling poet, but like Mimi, the poor waif (another stock character), he is a fleshed-out individual. Rudolfo is proud, idealistic, angry, frustrated, and in love with a dying woman  He is, as he sings in one of the first arias of the night (“che gelida manina/sonno un poeta”), a “poet” – a restless figure, but a noble one. And Slayden sings it so beautifully

Elaine Alvarez, however, takes the show away as Mimi, the dying seamstress.  Alvarez, a young singer making her Virginia Opera debut (as are Slayden, Parks, and López-Hernández), has already made a name for herself singing this role, as others. She brings to the part a tender voice that is expressive, and vulnerable yet bright. From her first aria: “Si mi chiamo Mimi” (they call me Mimi), to her sorrowful departure in the last act, Alvarez’s role is one of sincere beauty, her performance lovely.

La Bohème is justly a classic of the modern opera, and a particularly good introduction to it. The Virginia Opera’s production more than rises to the task.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including two intermissions.

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Virginia Opera’s La Boheme played last night at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA. There is one more performance today at 2 PM. For tickets, call (888) 945-2468, or purchase them at the door or online.

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