Boisterous and glamorous “La Bohème” takes back the Opera House for WNO

Sun May 14, 2023 at 2:10 pm
La Boheme at Washington National Opera

Jacqueline Echols (upper left) and Peter Rose (right) with cast in Washington National Opera’s production of La Bohème. Photo: Scott Suchman

Puccini’s La Bohème is a perennial favorite with audiences. Washington National Opera has performed this sentimental melodrama at least once a decade since the 1980s, and its time in the rotation came up again this month. A revival of the company’s last production of the opera, mounted in 2014, opened Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, and its many admirable qualities make it a good choice for introducing a neophyte to opera.

All four lead singers are young and beautiful enough to be physically credible as starving artists in the garrets and cafés of Paris, and they display the vocal power and sensitivity to bring off their challenging roles. At the top of the cast is the moving Mimi of soprano Gabriella Reyes, in a noteworthy company debut. The combination of innocent clarity and emotion-baring punch in her voice made her major solo moments a highlight of each of the four acts.

Reyes overshadowed her Rodolfo at times, although she was careful to scale her sound to match Kang Wang’s lighter tenor when they sang together. Wang’s high C rang clearly in the Act I showpiece “Che gelida manina,” although the middle and low range of his voice paled and got lost at times. The acting direction in this production, generally strong, lifted Wang’s character into a more vivid interpretation of the character’s passions and regrets.

The lead couple’s comic foils were better matched. Soprano Jacqueline Echols, an audience favorite from her years in the WNO Cafritz Young Artists program, strutted and brayed confidently as Musetta. Her “Quando m’en vo” in Act II was a highlight of the evening, eliciting an equally bravura reaction from her Marcello, the potent baritone Gihoon Kim. Their spiteful fight in Act III, coinciding with the tender reconciliation of Mimi and Rodolfo, was a comic delight.

Rounding out the cast with solid performances were basses Blake Denson and Peixin Chen as Schaunard and Colline, respectively. Denson had occasional lapses in terms of ensemble cohesion but gave the role of the musician pleasing humor. Chen’s voice had sufficient power for the philosopher, although the control sometimes lacked, as in the plangent but rough-edged rendition of the character’s rueful aria “Vecchia zimarra, senti” in Act IV.

In a surprise bit of luxury casting, WNO has finally brought celebrated British bass Peter Rose to its stage, for the two cameo roles of Benoit, the meddling landlord who demands the rent in Act I, and the hapless Alcindoro, whom Musetta sticks with the large bill at the Café Momus in Act II. Rose brought exceptional clarity of voice and impeccable comic timing to both of these minor characters, worthy of the surprise curtain call at the end of Act II, which seemed to catch the audience off-guard.

La Boheme at Washington National Opera

Gabriella Reyes as Mimi and Kang Wang as Rodolfo in WNO’s La Bohème. Photo: Scott Suchman

Moscow-born conductor Alevtina Ioffe, who left her position as music director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg last July, made a mixed impression in her WNO debut. She held to her firm beat, gesturing with a deliberateness that allowed her to right some occasional misalignments in the big crowd scene of Act II, which includes the appearance of the onstage banda. Some singers, wanting to take greater liberties, bristled against her rigidity, but the large chorus and children’s chorus remained almost always with her tempo.

The staging, originally by Jo Davies and here revived by Peter Kazaras, repositioned the opera’s action to 1920s Paris, in the wake of World War I. This caused minor problems of historical inaccuracy: the Right Bank’s Café Momus, for example, went out of business in the 1850s, not long after Henry Mürger wrote about the characters in his Scènes de la vie de bohème meeting there. Apt evocations of the era abound: Musetta, costumed as a flapper, arrives at the Momus in a vintage roadster (costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller).

Among the supernumeraries are dancers moving in sync as tuxedoed waiters, as well as another doing a credible imitation of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, all homages to the era of silent film (choreography by Ben Wright). The darker aspects of the war appear as wounded soldiers limping in processions, including the philosopher Colline, whose bum leg requires him to use a cane. During the mock-duel scene of Act IV, the four friends mime the horrors of trench warfare, including one who dons a gas mask.

Lee Savage’s original sets are big and showy, garnering their own applause. Nuanced light, designed this time around by A. J. Guban, flows through the tall windows of the bare attic in the outer acts. Electric light illuminates the Momus and the street for the Christmas Eve parade in Act II. In Act III, falling snow and barren trees change to pink blossoms on the branches and floating down through the air for the transition into Act IV.

La Bohème runs through May 27. The performances on May 14 and 26 will feature a cast of singers from the Cafritz Young Artists program.

One Response to “Boisterous and glamorous “La Bohème” takes back the Opera House for WNO”

  1. Posted May 28, 2023 at 7:27 pm by brenda anderson

    The May 26 La Boheme was absolutely wonderful. Please congratulate the musicians and thank them for a wonderful performance. Brenda Anderson

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