Young love is in the air, lifted there by a host of young performers in the Washington National Opera’s new production of La bohème. Most of the cast and crew are making their WNO debut. Many are former and even current members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, the WNO’s international training program for promising opera talent. Giacomo Puccini composed the music and Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for this famous and oft-performed opera which first debuted in 1896. It’s been seven years since the WNO last tackled it. It’s sung in Italian with English surtitles.
The young cast is almost obligatory for this opera about a few young artists starving for their art in Paris, falling in love, falling out of love, and taking care of each other, all set to the lyrical tones of the Italian score. Jonathan Larson borrowed the story when he wrote RENT a hundred years later.
Jo Davies created this new production and Peter Kazaras directs. The simple staging works well to highlight the intimate relationships on a beautiful set by Lee Savage. It received as much applause as any aria. From the attic room lit with weak Parisian light by designer Bruno Poet, to the edge of Paris in the snow, each scene looks like a painting. The Latin Quarter is bursting with color and light and the ingenious costumes of Jennifer Moeller. This production is set in World War I and Musetta’s red velvet flapper dress is a particular triumph.
Philippe Auguin is at the baton for Puccini’s tricky, emotional score and the two lead roles are in good hands. Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo) and Corinne Winters (Mimì) both have great acting and vocal chops and their chemistry makes their instant love affair entirely believable. More than believable; there’s no greater expression of extravagant love than their opening arias, “Che Gelida Manina” (This Little Hand is Frozen) and, of course, “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi” (Yes, My Name is Mimi).
Winters brings a believable sweetness and innocence to the role, though her voice is anything but; it’s mature and powerful. Pirgu excels as the lover and also has the gravity for the tragic turn in Act 2 for their duet, “Donde lieta uscì” (I came happily from my little nest).
Alyson Cambridge (Musetta) steals the spotlight when she enters and though the Latin Quarter is bursting with a large chorus and children’s chorus, she holds her own for “Quando m’en vo’” better known as “Musetta’s Waltz.”
Joshua Bloom (Colline) is another standout, particularly when he sings “Vecchia zimarra, senti” (Faithful, Old Garment, Listen)” in an impressive bass. It’s an ode to his overcoat. John Chest (Marcello) and Steven LaBrie (Schaunard) round out the cast of young bohemians. Donato DiStefano (Benoit, Alcindoro) takes on two aging, buffoonish roles trying to thwart the youths. He sings them both with relish.
Alexey Dolgov (Rudolpho), Tatiana Monogarova (Mimi), Trevor Scheunemann (Marcello), Leah Partridge (Musetta), Musa Ngqungwana (Colline), and Christian Bowers (Schaunard) will take the stage for alternate performances. For the November 14th performance, the entire cast will be members of the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist Program.
It was obvious at some points that some of the singers are still coming into their own and were overpowered by the orchestra for this performance, but for the most part, Puccini’s beautiful score of humor, fun, friendship, love, and loss sailed right along.
There is a particular magic to this opera – whether it is the truly beautiful music, a believable love story, the precious friendships of the rag tag artists, or the tragic end, the world never grows tired of Bohemia. Washington National Opera’s La bohème is truly gorgeous to behold and this classic love affair has never been in better hands. It’s a charming, moving, and beautiful production.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.
La bohème plays through November 15, 2014 at Washington National Opera performing in the Kennedy Center Opera House -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or 1-800-444-1324, or purchase them online.