'La Bohème,' Updated and Nearly Undone

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

Buried amid the tawdry debris of Washington National Opera's "contemporary" production of "La Bohème," which opened at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, is an unusually fine rendition of Giacomo Puccini's score.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume shapes the work with love, lyricism and an unfailing sense of proportion. The casting is generally strong, and better than that when Vittorio Grigolo is onstage, singing the role of Rodolfo in a fresh, sweet, sensitive tenor voice that is nevertheless capable of clarion power.

But then there is that production -- dark, dumb, drab, denatured -- by the Polish director Mariusz Trelinski, which has to be the least sympathetic staging of "La Bohème" I've ever seen. It is as though Trelinski read an article about deconstructionism, that intellectual fad of a generation ago, thought to himself "Cool!" and then set to work.

And so Rodolfo and his fellow Bohemians are transformed into latter-day answers to the "wild and crazy guys" portrayed so indelibly by Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin, snapping their fingers, grinding their hips and high-fiving across the stage. Musetta has been remade as a whip-cracking dominatrix out of Cruella deVil: All she needs is a spotted coat and a cigarette holder to complete the illusion. The great teeming cityscape of Act 2 has been reduced to seamy goings-on within a trendy nightclub, circa 1980 (Divine and the Village People would seem to be habitues). If the Broadway hit "Rent" is commonly understood as a derivative of "La Bohème," then this "La Bohème" may stand as a vulgarization of "Rent."

I risk making this all sound entertaining, but it really isn't. Updatings of classic operas can be enormously effective -- even beautiful and revelatory (watch Peter Sellars's transformation of "Le Nozze di Figaro" for proof). This is nothing of the sort. We learn nothing about the character of Mimi by watching her sing her autobiographical aria through a bumpy, grimy video projection; we are merely distracted and distanced by an easy gimmick. And the slangy supertitles, while witty on occasion, have nothing to do with what is actually going on in the drama. (You will search in vain for any mention of "expatriate Brits" or "passport photographers" in Puccini's original.)

In fact, there isn't a trace of human understanding in Trelinski's conception; everybody in the drama, down to the smallest parts, is a walking cliche. The Bohos dress as though they are waiting for a photographer from Vanity Fair to arrive, the transvestite dancer seems to have flown in from Sally Bowles's Berlin, the whores are indelibly and robotically whorish. And the staging is leaden, combining brutalist urban noir with disco trash and tinsel, complete with costume angel wings that appear assembled from dozens of squashed hamsters.

All that keeps this from being one of WNO's complete and total disasters, on a level with the company's still-breathtaking "Il Trovatore" from the 2004-2005 season, is the musical execution. The Washington National Opera Orchestra played with rapt tenderness and precision for Villaume, and the chorus sang out lustily. Adriana Damato was an urgent, affecting Mimi (albeit an unusually frisky one in the final act; her decision to die seemed a sudden afterthought). Nicole Cabell sang the role of Musetta with agility and brilliance, although her voice occasionally took on an unwonted hardness. Hyung Yun proved a dapper, mellow-toned Marcello; Trevor Scheunemann brought the requisite high spirits to the role of Schaunard, and Paolo Pecchioli sang Colline's gnomic "Coat Song" with dignity and resignation, although the coat to which he bade sad farewell looked far too studiously groovy to appeal to any philosopher more weighty than Andy Warhol.

And then there is Grigolo, who, according to his biography in the program guide, "perfected the role of Rodolfo under Maestro Luciano Pavarotti." I wouldn't go quite that far -- has anybody, anywhere, "perfected" anything? and should this sort of puffery be permitted in a reference source? -- but he is a wonderful young musician, and perhaps the director of his next "Bohème" will permit him the indulgence of embracing his lost Mimi instead of having him fuss, twitch, slouch and then ram himself into the wall.

La Bohème will be repeated tonight, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday afternoon (with a free telecast on the Mall), Sept. 25, 27, 29 and 30. Information: 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org.

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