02 November 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – LA BOHÈME (C. Winters, S. Pirgu, A. Cambridge, J. Chest, J. Bloom, S. LaBrie; Washington National Opera – 1 November 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano Corinne Winters as Mimì in Jo Davies's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME at Washington National Opera, November 2014 [Photo by Cade Martin, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]Sì, mi chiamano Mimì: Soprano Corinne Winters as Mimì in Jo Davies’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at Washington National Opera, November 2014 [Photo by Cade Martin, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeCorinne Winters (Mimì), Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo), Alyson Cambridge (Musetta), John Chest (Marcello), Joshua Bloom (Colline), Steven LaBrie (Schaunard), Donato DiStefano (Benoît, Alcindoro), Adam Caughey (Parpignol), James Shaffran (Sergeant), Andrew McLaughlin (Customs Officer); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin, conductor [Production by Jo Davies; Sets by Lee Savage; Costumes by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting by Bruno Poet; Choreography by Ben Wright; Stage direction by Peter Kazaras; Washington National Opera, The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 1 November 2014]

When ​Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème was published in 1851, the author’s wildest hopes for the endurance of his innovative work cannot have encompassed the extraordinary and lasting impact that his sometimes comical, sometimes pathetic scenes of life in Paris’s Quartier latin would have on opera. The appeal of these tales of struggling bohemians was not lost on Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci, whose own La bohème is a pithier work in many ways more evocative of the bleakness of Murger’s stories, but it is Puccini's La bohème, premièred under Arturo Toscanini’s baton at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1896, that seized audiences’ imaginations and has never relinquished its grasp. Now, 118 years after the opera’s first performance, it has become fashionable to dismiss Puccini’s music in general and La bohème in particular as emotionally-manipulative frivolity. The most recent performance of La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera was the company’s 1,263rd presentation of the opera, however, and this figure alone validates the continuing magnetism of Puccini’s score. In its purest essence, La bohème is opera at its most persuasive. Its melodies are those that audiences have hummed in spite of themselves for more than a century, and its characters are people, not archetypes; people whose fates matter whether or not it is acceptable to admit it.

Washington National Opera’s new production of La bohème by Jo Davies nods to recent trends of approaching opera from the perspective of cinema, casting the opera with attractive young singers who look as their characters are expected to look, but these pretty faces also offered well-sung, largely compellingly-acted portrayals of Puccini’s bohemians. Ms. Davies’s concept, Lee Savage’s sets, Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, and Bruno Poet’s lighting allowed Puccini’s score to work its magic, the imaginative details of the production never obscuring the wistful charm of the music, and Ben Wright’s choreography was vibrant and often genuinely funny without being condescending or foolish. The novelty of having dancers perform a tango at the Café Momus, followed by a waltz during Musetta’s aria, was delightful. The presence of a Chaplinesque figure in Act Two was slightly mystifying despite historical parallels, but the glimpses of Christmas Eve celebrants peering out of flats decorated with Christmas trees were charming. The stage tableaux were as visually stunning as those of the long-serving Franco Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan Opera, but Washington National Opera’s production never distracted focus away from the principals as the Zeffirelli production does, especially in Act Two. The transformation of falling snow into spring blossoms cascading from the trees during ‘Addio senza rancor’ was a simple but strangely moving effect: the passage of time and the significance of its waning on Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s relationship were palpable. Both sets and costumes suggested the earnest efforts of struggling artists to make the best of what little they have. Despite their poverty, Puccini’s bohemians are basically happy people, after all. La bohème can survive a great deal of directorial tinkering, but the best productions are those that allow the drama to play out without striving to artificially universalize it. If an audience cannot relate to pinching pennies, recklessly blowing through an unexpected windfall, relationships tried by suffering, terminal illness, and the agony of saying final goodbyes, the failure is not Puccini’s. The greatest success of Ms. Davies’s vision is that, though unafraid of bold gestures, the production did not attempt to dictate why the audience should care about the people on stage: instead, it enabled those people to devote themselves to singing their parts memorably, and Puccini’s music provided all the relevance that was required.

Philippe Auguin led the WNO Orchestra in an uncommonly poetic account of Puccini’s score. Some of the conductor’s tempi were daringly slow, exemplified by his expansive pacing of the central cantabile section of ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì.’ The emotional concentration that he, the orchestra, and the cast summoned in this and similar passages fully justified his choices of speeds. The high string playing was not marred by excessive vibrato, and the woodwind playing was unusually prominent, with the dramatically vital clarinet writing particularly highlighted. The harp could always be heard, its harmonies lending plaintive qualities to even the most jovial of moments, and Maestro Auguin encouraged both instrumentalists and singers to follow Puccini’s markings with laudable fidelity. The variety of Puccini’s orchestrations is rarely as apparent as it was in this performance, and a few missteps in ensemble between stage and pit were unimportant on the whole. Notably, Maestro Auguin devoted close attention to the French influences on Puccini’s score, especially in the Impressionistic musical depictions of the bohemians’ pitiful fire and the romantic moonlight in Act One and the chilling dawn at the gates of Paris in Act Three. Occasionally, outpourings of emotion from the orchestra competed with the singers rather than supporting them, but Maestro Auguin was alert to the nuances of the soloists’ phrasing. Building on the strength of the orchestral execution of Puccini’s music, the stage band played wonderfully in Act Two, and a subtle but poignant detail of the production was the inclusion of wounded soldiers at the end of the procession, their limbs presumably sacrificed in the defense of France in World War I. The massive ensemble in Act Two was brought off thrillingly, the choristers convincing as holiday revelers, patrons of the Café Momus, and governesses annoyed by their charges’ begging for toys and goodies.

The anchor of the tenor section in the chorus in Washington Concert Opera’s recent performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed I Montecchi, Adam Caughey was a clarion-voiced Parpignol in Act Two of La bohème, delivering his exclamations of ‘Ecco i giocattoli di Parpignol!’ with brio. As the Sergente and Doganiere in Act Three, baritones James Shaffran and Andrew McLaughlin were appropriately stern of demeanor and strong of voice. It was surprising in a new production to see so many of the denizens of Ms. Davies’s Paris smoking cigarettes, but a recreation of WWI-era Paris without smokers would hardly be credible.

Many audiences must endure ridiculous antics and poor singing from the artist who performs the rôles of Benoît, the bohemians’ bumbling landlord in Act One, and Musetta’s deep-pocketed paramour in Act Two, Alcindoro. Italian basso buffo Donato DiStefano was a convincing cad who actually sang both parts rather than mugging and barking. Benoît’s ‘A lei ne vengo perchè il trimestre scorso mi promise’ in Act One and Alcindoro’s ‘Come un facchino correr di qua di là’ in Act Two were truly amusing. There is no doubt that both gentlemen have earned their comeuppance, but Mr. DiStefano made them atypically sympathetic.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano Alyson Cambridge (center) as Musetta in Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's LA BOHÈME, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]Quando m’en vo’: Alyson Cambridge (center) as Musetta in Washington National Opera’s new production of Puccini’s La bohème, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]

Depicting Schaunard as a matinée idol with uninhibited high spirits, baritone Steven LaBrie was as light on his feet as Errol Flynn and more handsome than the young Cary Grant. His entrance in Act One and narration of his good fortune in assisting an Englishman with his parrot problem, ‘La banca di Francia per voi si sbilancia,’ was great fun, but his annoyance at his friends’ neglect was noticeably sincere. All was forgiven, of course, and he went on to be slyly endearing in Act Two. In his entrance in Act Four, clad like a cross-dressing Norma Desmond, Mr. LaBrie’s Schaunard stole the show, but it was his interaction with the other bohemians and the dying Mimì that proved unforgettable. Hovering first at stage right and then at stage left, staring through the window at the rooftops of Paris, he could not bear to watch Mimì’s final moments, and when with his attempt to place her hands back into the muffler bought for her by Musetta he inadvertently discovered that Mimì was already dead the profundity of his sorrow swept through the theatre. Musically, every note that he sang was accurately-pitched and beautiful to hear, but Mr. LaBrie greatly enriched the performance by wearing Schaunard’s heart on his sleeve and making it obvious that the loss of Mimì was not solely Rodolfo’s tragedy. There was almost the sense that Schaunard’s was the greater pain, doubled by loving both Mimì and Rodolfo.

From Colline’s first line in Act One, Joshua Bloom’s firm, resonant singing was wonderful. His powerful declamation of ‘Già dell'Apocalisse appariscono i segni’ did not hide his abundant good humor, and he rose thrillingly to top F in unison with Marcello on ‘Abbasso, abbasso l'autor!’ He was the epitome of gruff philosophizing in Act Two, and his jocularity could not be disguised in his rough-housing with his friends in Act Four. Perhaps it was his tumble down the stairs in Act One that produced his limp and cane later in the opera, but Mr. Bloom’s Colline also seemed physically and emotionally aged in the opera’s final scenes. Mr. Bloom’s understated singing of ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti, io resto al pian, tua scendere il sacro monte or devi,’ a problematic spot in many productions, was a rare performance that justified the aria’s place in the opera and made dramatic sense: for the philosopher, whose mind is guided by logic, parting with a beloved tangible possession is symbolic of the loss of Mimì, a loss that his ordered conception of humanity cannot rationalize. Like Mr. LaBrie, Mr. Bloom created a character who was both an individual and an integral part of a true community and did so with singing of distinction.

With his mane of golden locks, John Chest was a boyish Marcello of irrepressible energy and vigor. His voicing of ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce e assidera’ at the start of Act One was fantastically emphatic, and his untroubled ascent to the top F on ‘Faraon’ was pulse-quickening. Throughout the opera’s opening scenes, he sang with precision and acted with natural affability. When reunited with Musetta in Act Two, the spontaneous gaiety of Mr. Chest’s Marcello was changed in an instant to bitter impetuosity, but his best defenses proved no match for the wiles of this Musetta. His ardent reprise of the familiar theme of Musetta’s aria, ‘Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta,’ was fired into the house with the roar of a cannon. The physicality of his capitulation to Musetta left no doubt that, while Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s love was one of flowers and poems, his relationship with Musetta was defined by tantrums and burning passions. This contrasted meaningfully with his exchanges with Mimì at the beginning of Act Three: his tenderness was evidence of a deep affection, and there was surprising ferocity in his condemnation of Rodolfo’s jealousy and insincerity. When Rodolfo sang of Mimì’s illness, Mr. Chest’s Marcello seemed shocked to learn of her real condition, and the gentleness with which he comforted his friend was gripping. When Musetta’s laughter prompted the return of his tempestuousness, his anger was changed. Throwing his canvases at the tavern door after hurling insults at Musetta, the innocence of the happy-go-lucky Marcello of Act One was replaced by the insecurity of a young man who perceived that his world was deteriorating. Joining Rodolfo in Act Four in their pensive duet reminiscing about their absent lovers, Mr. Chest poured out a stream of dark, polished tone in ‘Io non so come sia che il mio pennello lavori.’ His forced joy was abandoned when Musetta brought news that the dying Mimì was too weak to climb the stairs to the garret, and he seemed lost in his own home as Mimì suffered before him. Mr. Chest’s singing of ‘Sei buona, o mia Musetta’ was unbearably lovely, and his pained utterance of ‘Coraggio’ was as much for himself as for Rodolfo. The machismo of the baritone’s portrayal of Marcello was tempered by a discernible vulnerability, and Mr. Chest brought to the rôle a voice of unyielding focus, evenness, and attractiveness.

Looking like a fusion of Josephine Baker and Vanessa Williams, native Washingtonian Alyson Cambridge was a vision of glamor as Musetta. Her easy top B♭ and admirably clean staccati served her well in Act Two, and she commanded the stage with unaffected star power. She phrased ’Quando me'n vo' soletta per la via la gente sosta e mia’ with aptly self-satisfied grandeur, her soaring top Bs slightly squally but secure. She was every inch a flirt, but there was no malice or cruelty in her dismissal of Alcindoro: footing the bill for the bohemians’ Christmas Eve feast was merely the price that he was expected to pay for having enjoyed her company. Though compelled to don a hat in Act Four that was more Grand Ole Opry than Grand Opera, Ms. Cambridge was again the embodiment of beyond-her-means fashion, but the facets of her acting were buffed to a bright glow in her selfless devotion to Mimì. Her prayer for her friend’s delivery from harm, ‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta che non debba morire,’ was calmly and confidently sung—and made all the more tragic by its futility, Mimì having expired as Musetta’s voice lifted her plea to the Blessed Mother. Ms. Cambridge’s chic Musetta’s heartfelt embrace of the shattered, shabby Marcello as the curtain fell was one of the most touching actions in the performance. Ultimately, Ms. Cambridge was, both musically and dramatically, a legitimately ‘buona Musetta.’

After celebrating the Verdi Bicentennial with performances of that composer’s music in some of the world’s most important theatres, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu returned to Puccini’s Rodolfo, a rôle that is virtually ideal for his lean, sunny lyric instrument and leading-man appearance. At once, his singing of ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi' was filled with poetic wonder, his imagination burning with the heat that eluded his body. The pair of top As were negotiated with panache, and the surrender of Rodolfo’s manuscript to the flames was rousingly done, his rise to top B♭ on ‘fiamma’ exciting. He was pensive even in the horseplay with the other bohemians, and the lyricism of his singing of the andantino ‘Io resto per terminar l'articolo di fondo del Castoro’ was lovely. There was more than comedic feigned alarm in his singing of ‘Colline, sei morto?’ and a captivating suggestion of a sigh of relief when the ‘not yet’ reply came. The subtlety with which Mr. Pirgu exclaimed ‘Una donna!’ after hearing Mimì’s voice was fetching, and his unfettered enthusiasm in the business with the candles and mock search for the lost key lent his portrayal an engaging simplicity. In Rodolfo’s celebrated aria, ‘Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar,’ Mr. Pirgu phrased with the elegance of a Tagliavini or Bergonzi and made light of the repeated assaults on his upper register. Here and in several other passages in the score, Maestro Auguin drove the orchestra to unrestrained dynamics that forced Mr. Pirgu to over-sing, and though his top notes were steady and accurately-pitched their quality was sometimes compromised by the necessity of producing them fortissimo. His phrasing was again a marvel in ‘O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso di mite circonfuso alba lunar in te,’ and the rise to the unison top A with Mimì was spectacular. The tranquil harmony of Puccini’s written ending to the duet is always to be preferred, but Mr. Pirgu’s top C was effective. Rodolfo can seem a prig in Act Two, cautioning Mimì that he would never tolerate coquettish behavior like Musetta’s, but the sweetness of Mr. Pirgu’s performance softened the sting of the text. It is unlikely that any Mimì could have failed to be beguiled by his singing of ‘Ho uno zio milionario,’ and the pride in his voicing of Rodolfo’s introduction of Mimì to his friends, ‘Questa è Mimì,’ was epitomized by his fervent delivery of the line ‘perchè son io il poeta essa la poesia.’ His interpolation of a top B in the ensemble coda of Musetta’s aria was further testimony to his amorous conviction. The ebullience of ‘Marcello. Finalmente!’ in Act Three quickly gave way to frustration in ‘Mimì è una civetta’ and then despair in ‘Invan, invan nascondo la mia vera tortura,’ his rise to top B♭ reflecting Rodolfo’s growing anguish. Mr. Pirgu’s Rodolfo seemed truly horrified to discern that Mimì overheard his admission to Marcello that she is dying. He began the great duet with Mimì as a man ashamed of his actions, and his serenity at the end of Act Three was darkened by his recognition of the fact that the days of his happiness were finitely numbered. In Act Four, his singing in the duet with Marcello, ‘O Mimì tu più non torni, o giorni bello,’ was loving, his and Mr. Chest’s voices blending appealingly. His heartbreak when reunited with the fading Mimì could not be hidden despite efforts at putting on a brave face for her sake. The greatest sadness of the performance was that Mimì died in the moment that Rodolfo turned away from her, overcome by emotion.   The weight of his love and grief lifted from her only for an instant, she quietly slipped away. His cry of ‘Che vuol dire quell'andare e venire...quel guardarmi così’ came from the soul of a man who knew the girl he loved was dying but was not ready to face her death. The top G♯s of his calling of Mimì’s name rang out with chilling force. The popularity of La bohème leads many listeners to the erroneous assumption that it is not a difficult opera to sing, but Rodolfo is a hugely demanding rôle for a thoughtful tenor. Mr. Pirgu possesses technique and reserves of vocal velvet sufficient to sail through Rodolfo’s music with relative ease, but his performance confirmed that he cares about his work, his colleagues, and the audience too much to coast. Most importantly, he was a Rodolfo whose every note resounded with love for Mimì and his friends, and the stage could not contain the intensity—or the beauty—of his sorrow.

Maryland native Corinne Winters is one of America’s most gifted young sopranos, and her singing of Mimì’s music offered tantalizing vistas of how her career promises to develop in seasons to come. The shyness of her opening ‘Scusi’ was prepossessing and set the tone for her performance as a whole. There was a disarming girlishness in her voicing of ‘Oh sventata, sventata! La chiave della stanza dove l'ho lasciata?’ that persisted in her broadly-phrased account of ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì ma il mio nome è Lucia.’ Her breath control was challenged by Maestro Auguin’s tempo in the aria, and, like Mr. Pirgu in his aria, she had to force in the ascent to the second of her climactic top As in order to be heard.  Both in her aria and in the subsequent duet with Rodolfo, coarseness occasionally crept into Ms. Winters’s tone, and though well-projected the top C at the duet’s end taxed her. In Act Two, her singing of ‘Una cuffietta a pizzi tutta rosa ricamata’ was alluring, her top A again a riveting tone. The demureness of her interactions with Rodolfo’s friends was absorbing, and she joined Musetta on the top line of the ensemble with unshakable security. The pallor of death was already in her voice when she sang ‘Sa dirmi, scusi, qual'è l'osteria dove un pittor lavora?’ at the start of Act Three, and the desperation of her ‘O buon Marcello, aiuto!’ was conveyed by her flights to the pair of top B♭s. The histrionic faculty of her voicing of ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d'amore’ was enhanced by the poise of her singing, and the gracefulness of her ‘Addio senza rancor’ was keenly emotive. Her chemistry with Mr. Pirgu was unmistakable, but her diminutive Mimì had rapport with all of her bohemian friends. There was a bizarre strength in her fragility in Act Four, her singing of ‘O mio Rodolfo! Mi vuoi qui con te?’ gleaming with distraught happiness and her dulcet ‘Buon giorno, Marcello, Schaunard, Colline, buon giorno’ seemingly intended to reassure her friends that all would be well. Her voice reduced to a thread, she serenaded Rodolfo with ‘Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire,’ remembering their first meeting in Act One with elation they both knew was fleeting. The bliss that Ms. Winters evinced in ‘La mia cuffietta,’ having realized that Rodolfo kept the hat that he bought her in Act Two, was wrenching. Even with the knell of death in her voice, she sought to comfort her lover and her friends, and the stillness of her passing was enormously affecting. Ms. Winters was not yet a perfect Mimì, but she exhibited refreshing respect for the rôle. She put moments of stress to use as affirmation of the ravages of Mimì’s illness—the mark of a skillful singer. Above all, she trusted Puccini’s music to sustain her. Placing her trust in Puccini, the audience trusted her, and she repaid that trust with a performance of delicacy and chaste tragic potency.

A new production of La bohème is rarely newsworthy, but Jo Davies’s production for Washington National Opera is a realization of initiatives and insights that mines the richest vein of Puccini’s timeless tragedy. As far too many recent productions have attested, however, initiatives and insights cannot compensate for ineffectual singing. In that respect, WNO’s Bohème is a triumph. Opera does not depend upon perfection: it depends upon zeal from those on the stage, in the orchestra pit, on the podium, behind the scenes, in the orchestra seats, and in the highest balcony. It is difficult to imagine anyone leaving the Kennedy Center after this performance not feeling devastated by the shared loss of a precious young girl and her embroidered flowers and rejuvenated by the future of an art form so mellifluously advocated by a cast of talented singers. If prevalent musicological opinion dictates that one should have been ashamed of shedding tears for these bohemians, conventions be damned.

IN PERFORMANCE: [from left to right] Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo, Corinne Winters as Mimì, Joshua Bloom as Colline, Steven LaBrie as Schaunard, and John Chest as Marcello in Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's LA BOHÈME, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]La commedia è stupenda: (from left to right) Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo, Corinne Winters as Mimì, Joshua Bloom as Colline, Steven LaBrie as Schaunard, and John Chest as Marcello in Act Two of Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's La bohème, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]