Washington National Opera’s ‘La Bohème’ is young at heart

Scene at the Café Momus. Washington National Opera's "La Bohème." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2014 – Something different was in the air at the Kennedy Center this past Saturday. Throngs of excited operagoers crowded the grand foyer in the vicinity of the Opera House, as a capacity crowd built for the opening performance of the Washington National Opera’s new production of Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

A capacity crowd is to be expected, of course, for this much-beloved opera. But what was different on Saturday was this: upwards of half the audience, it seemed, was comprised of 20- and 30-somethings dressed to the nines and looking sleek and fabulous, almost like Gatsby and Daisy.

In the world of classical music and opera, “kids” in the audience are generally pushing 50. So what happened Saturday night to change the demographic? Was it the appeal of a new production? The fact that WNO strongly publicized its choice this year to go for a youthful cast, including some of its up-and-coming Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists? Or the “#laboheme” hashtag handout tipped into each program?

Or was it simply the appealing, realistic tale told by the opera itself as it follows the hope-filled lives of hungry, impoverished but still fun-loving young artists as they try to catch a break in the big city?

In any event, kudos to WNO for attracting such a large and youthful audience to its latest offering. And we’re sure they weren’t disappointed by this cleverly, albeit slightly updated new production.

Puccini's fun-loving Bohemians, L-R: Rodolfo, Mimi, Schaunard, Colline, Marcello. (Credit: Scott Suchman)
Puccini’s fun-loving Bohemians, L-R: Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu), Mimi (Corinne Winters), Colinne (Joshua Bloom), Schaunard (Steven LaBrie), Marcello (John Chest). (Credit: Scott Suchman)


WNO scoops up Puccini’s youthful 19th century artists and whisks them forward to a somewhat updated, post World War I Paris. While this writer, at least, tends to mistrust updates, this one works, both functionally and visually, as an almost 1830s level of poverty and misery descended on much of Europe after that devastating early 20th century conflict.

Much of the staging in this production—directed by Peter Kazaras—is a bit Euro-gray for us, something we’ve grown to dislike over the years. But again, atmospherically, the notion tended to work here, as did the characters’ dull clothing choices. Most likely, fashion after WWI among the youthful artistic class would have been, well, whatever they could afford.

But this production’s evocative sets helped pull things together, ranging from the depressing garret of the opening scene, to the chaotic Café Momus of the middle stanza, to the beautifully evocative outdoor tavern scene of Act III, to the tragic finale, transported once again to the original garret—but one that’s been weirdly exploded into space and time as poor Mimi prepares for her sad voyage into an uncertain eternity.

Poverty is, after all, a bit depressing. And death, as Puccini’s young artists learn, is something that youth, enthusiasm and hijinks can never hope to overcome. For in the end, this is an opera that’s not just about youth. It’s also about the end of youth and the sobering intrusion of adulthood, something these sets ultimately conveyed superbly.

WNO is staging quite a few performance of “Bohème” in November—so many that they’re platooning two casts. We saw “Cast A” on Saturday, and were generally pleased with what we heard. (Over many years, we’ve noted that WNO’s “second casts” are usually equally good, but, of course, somewhat different as one might expect.)

That said, the first half of opening night seemed, at times, slightly lacking in both volume and personal chemistry—a problem that can surface at WNO from time to time simply due to the fact that, unlike the Met, they stage relatively few performances of each opera.

The Met, significantly, likely due in large part to its massive budget, doesn’t offer its simulcast HD performances of its operas until they’ve been on the boards for a couple of weeks, which is when we review them here. As a result, by the time we see these performances at our local participating movie theater, any kinks that might have occurred during the first few performances have been worked out over time.

Here, for better or worse, we review the literal opening night, and sometimes calibration is still going on while we take in the performance. Saturday evening, for example, it was sometimes a little hard to hear the singers in Act I. But by the time we got to that tavern scene, the problem seems to have ironed itself out, as had Act I’s tentative characterizations.

Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu) and Mimi (Corinne Winters) only have eyes for each other. (Credit: Scott Suchman)
Rodolfo (Saimir Pirgu) and Mimi (Corinne Winters) only have eyes for each other. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

As Puccini’s love-struck, often fumbling hero, Rodolfo, tenor Saimir Pirgu seemed a bit weak and tentative in Act I, although he began to gain power and confidence as the act concluded. Ditto soprano Corinne Winters, although her character, the consumptive Mimi, is supposed to be a little uncertain of herself in this act.

We had been impressed by Ms. Winters this past summer for her impressive handling of her key role in Santa Fe Opera’s U.S. premiere of Huang Ruo’s “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” and so we weren’t surprised to hear her bloom in that wonderful third act. In so doing, she seems to have inspired Mr. Pirgu to do the same, and everything caught fire from that point on.

Alyson Cambridge gave the audience a suitably headstrong Musetta, particularly in Act II. But she also proved able to shift quite convincingly into a much more sympathetic character in the final act as her heart goes out to the dying Mimi.

Rodolfo’s pals Colline (Joshua Bloom), Steven LaBrie (Schaunard) and John Chest (Marcello), seemed in rare form Saturday night and clearly enjoyed their roles. Mr. Chest was particularly effective as the antic and much put-upon (by Musetta) Marcello, and, oddly, also reminded us a bit of the young Brad Pitt in the classic Western film, “Legends of the Fall.”

The chorus sounded fine in the Café Momus scene, and the orchestra, under its music director, Philippe Auguin, played warmly and superbly, particularly at the conclusion of Act I and again in those frosty Act II encounters among Rodolfo, Mimi, Marcello and Musetta.

In the end, there’s much to be said for WNO’s current production of “La Bohème.” With youthful singers in clearly youthful roles, the production has an authentic look, feel and sound as well as a visual appeal that should continue to attract the younger crowd.

But the production still appeals to aging Boomers like this one, many of whom still remember those long-ago days when youth and the glow of future promise were more than adequate antidotes to poverty and lousy landlords.

Rating: ** ½ (2 ½ out of 4 stars)

WNO’s “La Bohème” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through November 15, 2014. One specially priced performance (November 14) will exclusively feature WNO’s voices of tomorrow, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.

Tickets and information: Remaining seats are priced from $25-310. To purchase, visit the WNO pages at the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at either 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

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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