La Bohème, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman) (See more images here)
La Bohème is such an audience favorite that companies seem to be able to mount it in terrible productions, or with no-name singers, and the house will still fill itself. For its new production of the Puccini chestnut, heard on Saturday night, Washington National Opera passed the most important test, by not reviving the Mariusz Treliński dud it produced in 2007. The new production, updated to the post-World War I years, is in all other ways traditional and spectacular, but the cast list, including many company debuts, leaves some things to be desired.
At the top was the Mimi of soprano Corinne Winters, who hails from Frederick, Md., admired in recent years in training at Wolf Trap Opera, Virginia Opera, and Santa Fe Opera. She was a visually alluring Mimi, but with a few stutters vocally, a reminder that no Puccini opera should really be thought of, as is often the case, as a starter piece for young voices. Her Rodolfo, tenor Saimir Pirgu, has been sometimes impressive and other times not, and he produced mixed results here. Che gelida manina was not bad, but he often veered sharp and one wished that the sour off-stage high note at the end of the first scene had been even further off stage. John Chest's Marcello and Steven LaBrie's Schuanard were mostly under-powered, leaving the big ensemble scenes, like that at the Café Momus, mostly covered by the orchestra, conducted with exacting crispness and pleasing shape by music director Philippe Auguin, one of the highlights of the evening.
Anne Midgette, At WNO, a ‘La Bohème’ that gets the job done (Washington Post, November 3)
Tim Smith, A new production for 'La Boheme' from Washington National Opera (Baltimore Sun, November 3)
In truth, the biggest ovations of the night were produced by the set changes, which is a tribute to the spectacle produced by designer Lee Savage -- set pieces flying away from the first-scene garret to produce the crowd scene of the Momus. Clever, character-motivated direction from Jo Davies, working from the original direction by Peter Kazaras, added to what was a generally satisfying drama for the eyes -- although there was too much action packed into the crowd scenes that was just cutesy, like choreographed waiters out of Hello Dolly and a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. A little less attention on the crowd scenes and supernumeraries and more spent on the vocal casting would have gone a long way.
This production runs through November 15, with two separate casts, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Some discounted tickets are available.