UNLIKE MOST other operas, Puccini's "La Boheme" is "beloved" because of its tenderness and its believability -- not its grandeur. That's the way it's done in the gentle version that opened the Washington Opera season last Saturday, masterfully directed by Gian Carlo Menotti, whose own operas owe so much to the concepts Puccini developed.
This is a revival; the original opened the season three years ago, to unanimous praise.
This time, though, it's even better.
The major change is the addition of English "surtitles" translating the Italian of "Boheme's" fine text; they are projected high on the black bunting of the proscenium, within easy view but without interfering with the performance as translations sometimes do on television. This is a far better solution than having the singers actually sing in translation.
The other improvement is in the way the bewitching, and often quite original, details of Menotti's stage action seem to have fallen more naturally into place -- whether in the organized disorder of Christmas Eve at the Cafe Momus or in the subdued panic, all the more eloquent for being understated, after the dying Mimi is carried in during the last act.
There is also greater cohesion on the musical side. Conductor John Mauceri's grasp of Puccini's tonal beauties remains very fine. The clarity, though, during some of the difficult moments seems even more assured -- in the intertwined choral, solo and orchestral textures at the cafe and in his superb control of the epilogue, ever slower but with a steady pulse, with the brass never blaring, as they so often do.
Many of the principals are the same as before. All parts are credibly acted and fluently sung: Jerry Hadley's Rodolfo, Sheri Greenawald's Mimi, Janice Hall's Musetta, Allan Glassman's Schaunard, Eric Halfvarson's Colline, Francois Loup's double duty as Benoit and Alcindoro. Gino Quilico's performance as Marcello is especially promising; even at an early stage in his career, his baritone is big, flexible and beautifully textured. And Zack Brown's sets are as lovely as one remembered.
Maybe this "Boheme" wouldn't be right for all occasions; in a large house, for instance, some singers might be strained. But, in this case, it is a model matching of a company's resources to a great work's needs.
LA BOHEME -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House; this Friday, November 7 and November 20 at 8; November 8 at 2; November 12 at 7.