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Launching the Opera Season

The new production of Puccini's La Bohème from Washington National Opera, is probably on everyone's radar already. It opens on September 15 for a run of nine performances, two three of them already sold out at the time of this writing. When thinking about the question "What operas should we see in the fall," this was the the most prominent answer, and Tim Page covered it in detail earlier this week ('Bohème': We'll Always Have Paris, August 26) in the Washington Post. Page opened the article with the following question:

There must be somebody out there left cold by Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème." But who? -- and how?

Vittorio Grigolo -- what a dreamboat!
Opera Chic has already raised her hand, and our own Jens Laurson has memorably trashed that most beloved of Italian operas (it's a pity that the comment thread attached to that post was lost when we switched systems). For my part, La Bohème will always be exempt from harsh criticism because it is the first opera I grew to love: it hooked me on opera, so I overlook its weak points. As Page notes, La Bohème is an easy pill to swallow for an opera neophyte, but whether it will unblock a listener's ears permanently to the pleasure of opera is not at all sure. Most people who develop a soft spot for La Bohème will not go out the next week -- let's face it, probably not for the rest of their lives -- and develop a similar weakness for Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

The new staging by Polish director Mariusz Treliński (seen here in Madama Butterfly and Andrea Chénier) will probably be of interest. As I looked forward to the 2007-2008 season, this production disappointed me the most, not because of the director but because of the casting. The cast is young, singers reportedly chosen as much (or even more) for their attractive appearances as their voices. (Page discreetly avoids the issue of the singers for the most part in his article, which causes one to read between the lines.) One hopes that the company will make some money from the combination of sold-out houses and star-free budgets, but Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo may cut into the profit margin (although his alternate career as a crossover heart throb likely means he does not need money). Among the relative better-knowns, the Musetta will be Nicole Cabell, whose appearance in the role at Santa Fe Opera this summer has been described as "almost inaudible," "a bit underpowered," and "big in the recording studio, not so big otherwise." If the reason you go to the opera is to hear the most compelling singing possible, as well as to see engaging drama, you may wonder about the rate of casting to ticket price (as much as $500 on opening night!).

Brian Cummings in the role of Him, Elizabeth Baber in the role of Her, Ground, Ignoti Dei Opera, 2006, photo by Greg McLeskey
Brian Cummings (Him) and Elizabeth Baber (Her), Ground, American Opera Theater (Ignoti Dei Opera), 2006, photo by Greg McLeskey
We will have some season previews later this week, but our first recommendation of the year goes to the revival of American Opera Theater's Ground (September 7 to 9), which will inaugurate the company's residency at Davis Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Georgetown University here in Washington. When the experimental opera troupe from Baltimore (formerly known as Ignoti Dei Opera), presented Ground at Baltimore Theater Project last summer, not only did it receive a stellar review from Ionarts, it ended up making our list of Top 10 Live Performances of 2006. For its musical score, Ground patches together a series of unrelated vocal and instrumental pieces from 17th-century Italy. Most of the music is built over repeating bass patterns (known in English as ground bass), a compositional process that is static harmonically but that pulsates with rhythmic variation and invites visual diversion.

The repetition of a musical trajectory, an ostinato pattern of chords, is echoed in the story created under the direction of AOT's Timothy Nelson. It is simultaneously contemporary and timeless, about a man (Him) and a woman (Her) who meet, fall in love, and -- no more spoilers. The Italian texts sung by the two performers -- this year as last year, countertenor Brian Cummings (Him) and soprano Elizabeth Baber (Her) -- have little if anything to do with the action, and supertitles usually avoid giving any literal translation. For far less money (tickets are priced from $15 to $30), you will get to see a new work of operatic theater (not an old and overdone one reworked in yet another way), but without the additional challenge of new music. Do what Clayton Koonce has already done and buy your ticket.


Akimon Azuki said...

[Akimon raises her little cold but defiant hand as well!]
For me, La Boheme is the pimple on the face of opera; impossible to miss, and unavoidable at young age... but once you grow up, why on Earth would you spend your hard earned cash on that gellida baloney? It's the primary reason why I always avoid admitting to strangers that I love opera, lest they assume I can actually sit through such Bohemian garbage. Of course, feeling vaguely patriotic, I figured I should support Trelinsky, and so I have gathered few friends to attend the Sept 23 free telecast on the Mall. Squirming is easier on the grass...
I have secured tickets for other WNO productions (including two viewings of Don G) and I am totally psyched about AOT's offerings. Their production of Cavalli's La Didone was the highlight of 2006 for me. And have prime seats for ze Zélindor Baroque extravaganza by Opera Lafayette at Strathmore on Oct 4.
Honestly, this COULD be a very good opera season in DC!

Charles T. Downey said...

Well put, as always. My full fall opera preview forthcoming in the next couple days.

jfl said...

I trashed it before and at the least and smallest encouragement, I'll do it again.

(That's not to say that Catalan Bieito might not be able to save it from itself. With gargantuan, bloody penises ripping through the bohemian hymen.)