It is risky to bring a "La Bohe me" to Washington these days, when opera-lovers still have two extraordinary productions, by the Metropolitan Opera and the Washington Opera, fresh in their memories. But last night at Wolf Trap the New York City Opera faced and matched that challenge. It presented a "Bohe me" that may not have surpassed the more powerful presentations of the other two companies but made them seem, for a few hours, irrelevant.
The City Opera's "Bohe me" is sweet, direct and simple in expression, totally unpretentious but performed with a depth and a realism that give great satisfaction. The characters are not larger-than-life, as they tend to be particularly in the Met's production, and none of the voices is overwhelming. But the singing was highly satisfactory in all roles throughout the evening; the acting was understated and, for that very reason, quite convincing. I might add that the use of young singers to portray the young characters of this opera significantly enhanced its impact.
These remarks are not intended to detract from either the Met or the Washington production, both of which have their own validity on their somewhat grander scale. A key to the difference may be found in the stage direction. City Opera's director, Cynthia Auerbach, is nowhere near as famous, as technically skilled, or (at least in this production) as spectacularly imaginative as the Met's Franco Zeffirelli or Washington's Gian Carlo Menotti. She has no deft little tricks, no cute pieces of stage business to flesh out the action. Her production budget (while it allows a perfectly adequate visual setting for the opera) shows no signs of the sheer lavishness evident in the other two productions.
But is lavishness what one wants in this drama of love and optimism struggling in the face of grinding poverty? In the Met production particularly, the sheer spaciousness of the Bohemians' apartment must appear almost a sinful luxury to the average space-starved New Yorker who is presumably the production's primary audience. In contrast, the City Opera's garret for the first and last act looks exactly like a garret. One's eye sweeps across the stage and one wonders how four active young men, all engaged in the arts or scholarship and needing a certain amount of privacy, could live together in such a place. And this is one of the things that the opera is all about.
Lavishness may be more appropriate in the sidewalk cafe' scene of Act 2 -- Christmas Eve with the streets of the Latin Quarter bustling with happy shoppers and celebrators. This scene is dazzling in both the Met and the Washington productions, which pour more than 100 supernumeraries onto the stage and keep them all colorfully busy.
But the second act of the City Opera's "La Bohe me," smaller in scale and considerably less feverish in its stage business, had the charming look of an old-fashioned Christmas card. It worked exquisitely. For the third act, the City Opera's staging is fairly close to that of the other two companies in concept, though again somewhat more modest in scale.
Conductor Scott Bergeson paced and balanced the music well throughout, always supporting the voices (which richly deserved such support) and underlining subtle points in Puccini's rich and often neatly descriptive orchestration. He caught well the contrasting moods of the opera's four acts: wistful, idealistic romanticism in the splendidly lyric conclusion of Act 1, erotic comedy in Act 2 and pure, splendidly self-indulgent sentimentality in Act 4. In this interpretation, Act 3 (which can be the least interesting in the opera) becomes the focus and contrast to the other three. The mood turns from varieties of romantic fantasy into pure, cold realism as the two couples confront their human weaknesses and incompatibilities, abandon empty hopes and resolve to live, for at least a while, with whatever little comfort can be found in the stark truth. This effect is enhanced by the semi-ironic orchestral quotation of romantic motifs from earlier in the opera, and Bergeson strengthened both the musical and the dramatic effect by the clarity with which he presented these quotations.
Still, when all is said and done, the effect of a "La Bohe me" depends overwhelmingly on the singers. In this performance, they were well chosen not only for their voices and acting talents but for their ability to work together. Elizabeth Hynes is an appealing Mimi, vocally and in personality. Early in the opera, one or two of her notes had a vibrato verging on a wobble, and one high fortissimo momentarily overloaded the Wolf Trap sound system, but these were barely perceptible problems in an excellent interpretation. Richard Leech, as Rodolfo, had a few moments of vocal strain, but his performance was in general richly satisfying. In Act 2, Elizabeth Holleque's Musetta was not as hyperactive or as vivid as some others, but she sang well and she was convincing in all her changing modes: the seductress of the second act, the wildcat of the third, the friend in need of Act 4.
Supporting roles were well filled by Scott Reeve as Marcello, Harry Dworchak as Colline, David Hamilton as Schaunard and Don Yule as a landlord who studiously avoided the standard buffo mannerisms of that role. The chorus has relatively little to do in this opera, but its appearances were musically and theatrically effective.