Virginia Opera’s touching production of ‘La Bohème’

Simple, straightforward staging, passionate singing make beloved Puccini favorite new once again.

Having fun at Café Momus. L-R: Zulimar López-Hernández (Musetta); Edward Parks (Marcello); Jason Slaydon (Rodolfo); and Elaine Alvarez (Mimi). (Photo Credit: Lucid Frame Productions)

FAIRFAX, Virginia, November 21, 2015 – As it presents its final performances of ‘La Bohème’ in Richmond this weekend, the Virginia Opera can congratulate itself on a job well done.

Although this beloved audience favorite is getting far too many performances these days across the country, this Virginia Opera production, seen here at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, managed to make Puccini’s bittersweet 1896 romance as well as its starving young artists fresh, new and tragic all over again, courtesy of Erhard Rom’s deceptively simple but evocative sets and the company’s cast of fine young singer-actors.

Early on a frigid, snowy morning, Rodolfo (Jason Slaydon) and Mimi (Elaine Alvarez) decide to try romance one final time. (Credit: Timeline Photos)
Early on a frigid, snowy morning, Rodolfo (Jason Slaydon) and Mimi (Elaine Alvarez) decide to try romance one final time. (Photo Credit: Lucid Frame Productions)

“La Bohème” explores the tragic love affair between the poet, Rodolfo, and the consumptive needle worker Mimi, which, of course, is doomed to end badly by the final curtain. In between, however, we’re graced with some of the most wonderful characters and music ever created in the world of opera.

As Rodolfo, tenor Jason Slaydon was perfect as the opera’s romantic male lead. With a supple voice and with his matinee idol good looks, Mr. Slaydon was eminently believable as the good-hearted but clumsy-in-love poet. His passion was real, his heartbreak was visceral, and his vocal command of this role was beyond question.

As Mimi, soprano Elaine Alvarez was appropriately timid, yet also passionate, greeting her sudden, surprise romance with open arms and embracing Rodolfo and his generally unserious pals without question or hesitation. Ms. Alvarez’ instrument is both expressive and substantial. Yet she also knew how to pull her vocal punches at key moments, making her consumptive character all that more believable.

The supporting cast, particularly the coquettish Musetta (soprano Zulimar López-Hernández) and her much put-upon Marcello (baritone Edward Parks), backed up the leads in character roles that were convincingly acted and sung, with Ms. López-Hernández notable for her dramatic flair and Mr. Parks as convincing and sympathetic a best-buddy as we’ve ever seen in this opera.

Ditto for baritone Andrew McLaughlin (Schaunard) and bass-baritone Keith Brown (Colline). Although Mr. Brown’s role was a small one, he still impressed in Colline’s famous area where he bids a solemn farewell to his beloved coat (“Vecchia zimarra, senti”), sold to buy medicine for Mimi.

Under the baton of music director Adam Turner, the orchestra performed with dignity, grace and subtle passion, only rolling over the singers on one or two brief occasions. Direction by Kyle Lang was as it should be in this opera—unobtrusive yet freewheeling, giving Puccini’s youthful characters all the latitude they need as they move inexorably from a poverty-stricken but carefree youth toward an adulthood that must inevitably confront mortality.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17