OPERA

Opera review: 'La Boheme' at Wolf Trap Opera Company

From left, Matthew Hanscom, Ava Pine, Daniel Billings, Carlos Monzón, Hana Park and Diego Torre in the Wolf Trap Opera Company's spirited but absurd take on Puccini's opera, in which "La Bohème" was translated into "Rent" and back to "Bohème."
From left, Matthew Hanscom, Ava Pine, Daniel Billings, Carlos Monzón, Hana Park and Diego Torre in the Wolf Trap Opera Company's spirited but absurd take on Puccini's opera, in which "La Bohème" was translated into "Rent" and back to "Bohème." (By Carol Pratt -- Wolf Trap Opera Company)

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By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 10, 2009

Double translation does not work very well. Take the phrase "Puccini's story of love and loss in the counter-culture," use Google Translate to render it into French, and then take the French result and translate it back to English, and you get "Puccini's love story and the loss of the against-culture."

This sort of thing doesn't work very well with the opera itself, either. Wolf Trap Opera Company's "La Bohème" is the result of translating Puccini's opera into the musical "Rent" and then translating it back to operatic form. "Rent" turned Paris and tuberculosis, circa 1830, into New York's East Village and AIDS, circa 1990. On Friday night at the Filene Center, director Kevin Newbury returned to Puccini's music, added video projections to enhance the sparse stage settings, and set the production in Brooklyn in the present day.

This resulted in thrift-shop-clad "bohemians" with computers but without cellphones, or even land lines, that could have been used to call 911 for Mimi as she was dying; her friends could, however, find a doctor to make a house call, albeit too late. Opera libretti tend toward the absurd, but this was pushing it.

Still, the performance had joie de vivre in the cafe scene and a spirited pillow fight. And as always, Puccini's music -- lovingly played by the National Symphony Orchestra under Stephen Lord -- transcended the plot. Hana Park was a shy, gentle Mimi, her light, pleasant voice lending itself well to the very different expressiveness of "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" and "Addio, senza rancor." As the emotional center of the opera, she glowed.

The rest of the cast, unfortunately, often suffered amplification problems. Diego Torre (Rodolfo) had trouble throughout with a large, ill-fitting earpiece. He sounded scratchy in "Che gelida manina," although smoother in the duet "O soave fanciulla" a few minutes later. But he lacked the vocal heft of Daniel Billings (Marcello), who was far stronger in their confrontation at the tollgate (here, some sort of police line).

The audio was also unfriendly to Carlos Monzón (Colline), who sounded thin, and Matthew Hanscom (Schaunard), who seemed overamplified. Ava Pine was a bit screechy as a spike-heeled, short-skirted Musetta. Nicholas Masters showed talent for physical comedy as both Benoit and Alcindoro.

An enjoyable informality to the production made it better as a whole than its parts were individually. But it didn't quite work as "La Bohème." Maybe it should have been called, say, "Lease."


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