If you have ever wanted to believe everything in Puccini's "La Bohe me," go to the Washington Opera's first production of its new season, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.
Under the sensitive conducting of John Mauceri, with stage direction by Gian Carlo Menotti that brings to life all that is implicit in the situations and avoids the foolishness built up over the decades, this "Bohe me" is real at every moment.
The singers are young Americans with such gifts for acting and singing that they illustrate, as in no previous performance in a long lifetime of "Bohe me" watching, the old belief that Mimi and Musetta, Rudolfo and Marcello are just kids who, with just a little money, would be able to handle all their problems.
As Sheri Greenawald, Janice Hall, Jerry Hadley and Richard Stilwell acted and sang their roles, strongly joined by Allan Glassman's Schaunard and Julien Robbins' Colline, the stage seemed filled with real people who cared about each other until the final moments of the play, when their concern for the dying Mimi spilled over in unbelievable accents. It was impossible not to be profoundly moved.
Menotti, a wizard with his own works and the works of others, made a hundred marvelous moves throughout the drama. The stairs, part of the superb sets of Zack Brown, were just right for Mimi's entrances, in the way they made clear her weakness at the beginning and made plain how little life was left to her at the end. Brown's set for the second act, depicting the Cafe' Momus, was one of the brilliant achievements in opera history. Menotti made one of his cameo appearances in this scene, as a solitary figure joining the holiday celebrations, with grace and style.
Musically there are no arguments with this "Bohe me." Mauceri must have a very special affection for it. He was by turns tender and expansive, treating its incredibly rich score with Beecham-like attention to infinite detail. There was no lingering at places Puccini marked otherwise. But with what breadth and loveliness he handled its silences -- pauses clearly indicated but often passed over, particularly when stage directors fill them with senseless movement.
Mauceri held the orchestra, chorus and soloists together with a velvet hand that needed no iron. Since his principals had some of the slenderest voices collectively to be heard in any "Bohe me," Mauceri deserves particular praise for sustaining the delicate balances that marked the performance.
Light the voices were -- but they were impeccably projected with the utmost musicianship. The way Greenawald voiced "Bada" in the third act was magical. Hadley never forced his lyric voice beyond its finest sound, and the others kept everything within a framework where high art was the standard. The minor roles, sung by Gimi Geni, Tony Torchia, Jonathan Hughes and Keith Wyatt, were all excellent.
The wigs on the ladies in the cafe' scene were the essence of elegance for every social class present. The costumes by Pierluigi Samaritani, for the most part of darker hues, were splendid. The lighting and stage effects by Niel Pieter Jampolis were faultless in the second act, and unusually well done in the snowy third act.
If one moment were to be singled out of all the wealth of musical detail that made this "Bohe me" extraordinary, it would be the dynamics in the orchestra in the measure before Rudolfo and Marcello began to sing "O Mimi, tu piu non torni." A moment only, but characteristic of the perfection of a rare evening.
The opera is being repeated tonight, Wednesday night, Sunday and Nov. 20.