One Virginia evening (July 30), muggy as they come this time of the year, Wolf Trap threw a little concert performance of Puccini's evergreen (the word "classic" just won't pass my prejudiced pen) La Bohème. Because two tickets had fallen into my lap I went, and with me my almost opera-neophyte friend. A little disclaimer on my possible bias is perhaps in order, to alert the reader to my preconceived notions about tacky operas in tacky little provincial performances intended for a mob of summer bums who couldn't tell the difference between Monteverdi and Mantovani if their life depended on it.
But it seemed like a good way to hear something about which I already had such strong opinions without every having seen or even heard it! (La Bohème remains one of the half-dozen glaring holes in my otherwise scrutiny-withstanding collection of about 100 operas, and whereas I don't own a Fidelio or, until today, a Carmen, either, I have at least seen them live a few times.) Why have I never heard La Bohème? Presumably snobbery. It's popular: that's a non-starter for the secretly elitist opera cognoscente; it's gone through a Broadway phase (eeeeks), thanks to Baz Luhrmann, which can't please someone looking for a Gesamtkunstwerk; and, what is worst for me, it features a children's chorus, the likely death-spell for any classical work. A few children self-importantly jaunting about on stage and opening their mouths to "Noël, Noël" nearly kills Werther (Massenet) for me, so why not La Bohème? Children—and I say this having been an enthusiastic member of the Regensburger Domspatzen (one of Germany's best boy choirs) and loving a good a capella Mass for SATB with boys doing the croaking—should be allowed only in Mahler's 8th.
But enough asides, it was time to have these stereotypes and negative preconceptions reaffirmed or shattered. No overture to the piece, in and of itself not a bad sign; after all, Otello and Elektra, just to mention two works of pure genius don't afford us one, either. I am still thinking that it could be half as good as Madama Butterfly (about which I had had similar feelings, minus the children) and be a near-masterpiece, still! Alas...
That the wonderful Nurit Bar-Josef, the first violinist of the NSO who impressed me so during Mahler's 2nd under Gilbert Kaplan, seemed missing (did she know better than to participate in this? Or can she completely decurl her hair even in such humidity, thus hiding from me in plain sight?) was taken as an ominous sign on my part.
The miked voices over the loudspeakers and the semistaged performance of running about and looking to the monitors that showed Stephen Lord, conducting behind them on the back of the stage made sure that there was zero spatial definition to the whole affair. Everything came out flat from the set of speakers nearest me... which had an effect akin to seeing a movie with the soundtrack just off, disconnecting singers (actors) from the sounds they omit. If my negative notions were going to be proven wrong, this production was not going to do it; so much was clear after just half an hour or less.
To single out Rodolfo or Mimi for bad acting would be unfair, because even though they got to do more of it, the entire cast excelled at what still passes in opera as "acting"—a painful collection of purposeless limb extensions, senseless grand gestures, over-dramatizing, exaggerated movements, etc. (That it needn't be so is shown to us by singers all over the world, notably Bryn Terfel, Ann Murray, Kurt Moll, Felicity Lott, Bernd Weikl, Waltraut Meier, etc., who are all passable to excellent actors.)
"...And in your features I see a dream I never want to end..." Yikes—who should be shot here? The supertitle translator or the librettists' ancestors? That's even worse than Wagner's odd prose on one of his bad days.
James Valenti, Rodolfo
Kristin Reiersen, Musetta
Brian Mulligan, Marcello
But it's a tacky piece and maybe tacky is what it needs. How the composer can be the same as that of the delightful Butterfly eludes me, though. It seemed, at this point, midway through the second scene of the first act, unnecessary to write more about this performance, lest something extraordinary happen. Kristin Reiersen's Musetta, at least, made her appearance and was obnoxious, which, of course, she's supposed to be in her first scene. Her character made acting easier perhaps, but the acting she did was done comparatively excellently and she garnered much good will on my disgruntled part. From what was audible over the amplified mess of a sound, her voice was reasonably pleasing, something that could not be said about James Valenti's truly dreadfully played Rodolfo, thin and trying voice-wise, with some extra vibrato thrown in to make up for it. Jason Hardy, Benoît, the landlord, had no voice worth speaking of. Brian Mulligan's ample baritone for Marcello offered the most satisfying singing of the evening, not counting the crickets that offered their endearing accompaniment to the concert.
It's easier to feel sympathy for Siegfried (the boorish, ignorant, and fearless hero in Wagner's Ring) than the immature, whiny, self-pitying characters in La Bohème, who make scene 1 of Act 2 absolutely unbearable. One wants to yell at Mimi (Melissa Shippen) and Rodolfo to shut up and either split already or perhaps die, rather than continue their insincere mush masquerading as emotions. It's like watching a teenage romance gone sour, or worse: reliving one's own such embarrassments. The music meanwhile is just cute and unable to express these non-emotions, which might just be better that way, anyway. My friend, with unerring instinct, called the thing "trite" when I was trying to decide between "turgid," "campy," or "schmaltzy." At any rate, this performance was the unholy concoction of every bad cliché about opera (save the fat lady with horns, which of course belongs to Wagner's realm).
Morris Robinson was Colline, and Markus Beam was Schaunard. The 3,748 audience members (the Filene Center fits those plus two, plus another potential 3,100 on the lawn from which one can follow the performance) applauded and "bravo"-ed like I have never heard an audience, at least in Washington, cheer before. They were, no doubt delighted and bowled over, showing me, unisono, that I was the wrong person to be writing a review about it.
Still, I will need at least one Tristan and two Elektra's to get the bad opera out of my system.