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La Bohème: Not So Bohemian

Adriana Damato and Cast in La Bohème, Washington National Opera, 2007, photo by Karin Cooper
On Saturday night, Washington National Opera opened its fall season with an oh-so-edgy rendition of a tired old chestnut, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème (the fifth mounting of this opera by WNO since 1984). The aim of this new production by Mariusz Treliński (created for the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, whence Washington has also had his Butterfly and Andrea Chénier), laudable if misguided, was to create an image of opera somehow appealing to that infinitely desirable cadre of potential ticket buyers, young adults who have never been to an opera. If we are to take the world evoked by this Bohème at face value, those mysterious young future opera-goers are slender and reasonably attractive and regularly raid their seemingly endless wardrobes of trendy, tailored clothing before going to neon-lit clubs. They also wear silly costumes, enjoy vaguely smutty, transsexual floor shows, and shoot videos of each other. Curiously, they bear little resemblance to the desperately poor Bohemians of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica's libretto. The story is based on episodes from Henry Murger's classic novel Scènes de la vie de bohème, which in fact is not about a loft full of pretty metrosexuals.

Because the singers were chosen more for their tender age and good looks, we are obliged to start there. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo (Rodolfo) and soprano Nicole Cabell (Musetta) have both traded on their striking physiques to sell solo albums of dubious musical worth, and they are beautiful to watch live. It must have been possible, however, to find a Mimi who was a little less chunky around the middle than Adriana Damato. The closeup headshots and video of the Italian soprano, the latter shot handheld in real time by Rodolfo, were not particularly forgiving, either. To complete the lead quartet, one could only wonder what Cabell's Musetta saw in the diminutive, nerdy photographer Marcello of Korean baritone Hyung Yun, over whom she towered.

Vittorio Grigolo, tenor
Was the visual beauty of the cast, such as it was, really worth the musical sacrifices? Vittorio Grigolo was actually not as bad as initially feared, judging from his side career as a pop singer. (At least Grigolo had the good sense to turn down Simon Cowell's invitation to join Il Divo.) He had the high notes for Rodolfo, if without the sustained power, consistently beautiful tone, and subtle approach to line that make the best performances of Puccini. Trevor Scheunemann was a more refined presence as Schaunard, and Paolo Pecchioli had a nice turn in the Act IV coat aria as Colline. At least Grigolo's voice came across the orchestra for the most part, with some low notes getting lost.

Both Damato and Cabell were near-inaudible with alarming frequency, as was Yun at times, although his round baritone was at least pleasant to hear when it came through. In the Act III quartet scene, when Marcello and Musetta are supposed to be having a knock-out, drag-down fight while Mimi and Rodolfo make up, Cabell and Yun looked like a dumbshow of exaggerated gestures at the back of the stage. When you cast primarily for looks and your singers need amplification, it's called musical theater and bringing it to the opera house will not draw young people to opera, although it may drive people who love opera away. It is also important to realize that just because they are young does not mean that these less experienced singers will come across any more naturally on the stage than older singers with bigger voices. In fact, much of the acting on Saturday night was stilted. For all of Grigolo's vaunted apprenticeship with Pavarotti, great acting is not a skill we would expect to have been transmitted.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, 'La Bohème,' Updated and Nearly Undone (Washington Post, September 17)

T. L. Ponick, 'Boheme' in loft still true to Puccini (Washington Times, September 17)

Kevin Chaffee, Buzz over a startling 'Boheme' (Washington Times, September 17)

Charles T. Downey, Washington National Opera: La Ho-Hum (DCist, September 17)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera offers modern 'La Boheme' (Baltimore Sun, September 19)
If you want to recast Bohème into something about modern-day suffering artists, you would have to alter the libretto substantially: in fact, Jonathan Larson has already done it and to date it has probably brought no one to the theater to hear an opera. In fact, what opera companies should really do, rather than shoehorning an older opera into some modern story, is to sponsor more new operas on new stories. It is highly doubtful, however, that a thinking person really even needs to be told a story about his own age to make a real connection to it. Some of the most relevant and powerful modern operas -- Elektra, Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Pelléas et Mélisande, Billy Budd, Jenůfa, Wozzeck, The Ghosts of Versailles, to name only a few -- are as far removed from our time as the mythological operas of the 17th century. Far better for Washington National Opera, if they truly want to expand audiences with young people, is the program for affordable tickets instituted this year, Access to Opera Tickets. For that, we congratulate them, but please do us all a favor and spend more of the budget on the cast list.

Only three of the remaining eight performances of La Bohème are sold out. This Sunday's matinee will be broadcast live to a big screen on the National Mall (September 23, 2 pm), and $25 tickets are being offered for the September 25 and 27 performances, through the Access to Opera Tickets program (sold only on the day of the performance, at the box office, starting at 10 pm). Perhaps the B cast, performing in alternation with this cast and featuring tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz (who was pretty good in Madama Butterfly last season) as Rodolfo, will be better.

In a grand tradition celebrating the nexus of art and ostentation at the heart of opera, the patrons of Washington National Opera gathered in the Roof Terrace of the Kennedy Center after Saturday's performance for the Opening Night Gala. The guest list featured ambassadors (from Brazil, Kuwait, Afghanistan, India, Austria, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Peru, and Spain), politicians and government officials (Newt Gingrich, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and General Peter Pace), the singers and artistic staff from the opera, and even some press riff-raff. Jazz standards played by Glenn Pearson and His Orchestra (yes, thank you for the Michel Legrand selections) and the drinks flowed freely throughout dinner. The best news presented by a handful of speakers was that the funding is in place to complete the company's Ring cycle. Although the murmuring of the guests seemed to indicate that Wagner is not high on their list of priorities, General Director Plácido Domingo is absolutely right that the complete performance of Francesca Zambello's American Ring cycle will likely be one of the most important events in the history of Washington National Opera. It will bring the company some much-needed international attention.

See Michael Lodico's review of the B cast for this production, in the September 25 performance.


Anonymous said...

Charles, Thank you for this review! Could not be put better!

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for reading!

Varun said...

Charles - did you also see Fred Flintstone at the party?

It was perhaps the most disturbing thing about the entirety of the performance that in the midst of this nearly Bollywood-like performance, I saw Fred sort of wandering around hiding in the back!

PS - I wrote up my thoughts on la boheme on my shiny new blog too!

Akimon Azuki said...

We will see just how many young people flock to this Boheme- but the youngest crowd I have seen at WNO recently was at Jenufa, and I think the quality of the story, drama, and singing may have had something to do with it... I actually attended the opening night ... of La B as well, liked the staging and the incredible performance of one piece of furniture. But now that we left the chilly corpse of Mimi behind, I look forward to the rest of the season.

Anonymous said...

At age 26, I am the intended audience for the Kennedy Center’s contemporary version of La Boheme. Not realizing that the opera had been modernized, I was really looking forward to seeing the classic opera, but was sorely disappointed. If anything this performance of La Boheme is going to drive me away from Opera at the Kennedy Center. Just as a reminder to the Kennedy Center: La Boheme already has a contemporary version, its called Rent.

Anna said...

Charles, thank you for the review.
I live in Australia and attending La Boheme in NY was impossible, even though I wanted to see Vittorio in an opera.

Anomymous, please don't let one bad experience put you off.

In Austrlia I am giving, the 2008 Season a miss. I refuse to see modernised versions of classic Operas I love.
The 2007 Season was somewhat dissapointing. May be 2009 Seasion will be better. I can live in hope.

Anonymous said...

Well Said...there are some things that are beyyer left alone and unmodified.

Anonymous said...

My daughter recently returned from Italy where she participated in an opera festival. So she was anxious to see this event. She just now called us to tell us about the Boheme live stream at the mall. Her comment summed it up...."Eewww, dominatrixs and men in bunny suits"? ...and people wonder why NEA funding for their budget is so low or reduced.

Anonymous said...

Remember New Coke?