"La Boheme" felt slightly dusty Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Brought back as the second production of the Washington Opera's new season, this "Boheme" represents one of the company's growing problems: competition with memories of its own brilliant past.
Zack Brown's sets are still superbly evocative -- perhaps the best that fine artist has done in a distinguished association with the company dating back to 1979. But for many in the audience, these sets evoke not only Paris in the 1890s but Washington in the 1980s. They have been used in two previous seasons -- both times, with a cast that included Jerry Hadley, Sheri Greenawald, Janice Hall and Allan Glassman, conducting by John Mauceri and -- most important of all -- stage direction by Gian Carlo Menotti.
That "Boheme" was magic -- even the second time around, without the elements of newness and surprise. Memories of that magic are still so strong that an additional "Boheme" performance had to be added next Saturday and, for once, tickets are still available for a Washington Opera production after its opening night. This is a small historic moment: the first time any operatic production has been given eight performances in one season in the Opera House. But now the magic has settled down to routine competence at best, and the fact that it is happening in the familiar old garret, sidewalk cafe and Porte de l'Enfer sets makes even more pointed and poignant the contrast between the dusty present and the shining past.
Not that this is a bad "Boheme." Yoko Watanabe sang impressively as Mimi, though her stage presence was a bit strong for that essentially fragile role; Pamela South settled into a warm-voiced, vivid and ultimately sympathetic Musetta after some strained notes in her first minute or two; Andrew Wentzel, in his company debut, gave a good account of Colline's great Act 4 aria; Gaetan Lapierre's Marcello is promising and conductor Vjekoslav Sutej was sensitive to the poetry in the score -- sometimes, perhaps, to the point of losing elan as he lingered to savor a tender moment. But in 1981 and 1984, this "Boheme" could be compared favorably with the Metropolitan Opera's production, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, that had been shown on tour in the same opera house. Now, like so many of the Met's productions that keep reappearing year after year, it is beginning to feel tired.
These are essentially growing pains. When the company was young, fresh and struggling to establish its identity, everything it did was -- had to be -- special and new. It owned no productions like the splendid Zack Brown sets and costumes it now proudly claims (including a world-class "Rigoletto" coming later this season), and that meant it had to be starting constantly from scratch.
But it had the benefits as well as the disadvantages of being small, young and slightly insecure. What it did often had an air of improvisation, but there was little danger of going stale -- no time for it. Now, the company is like a ball club that needs to be reminded to keep on hustling. There is more and more often a sense of de'ja` vu. This can be an asset in classical music, which deals largely in experiences from the past. But the new experience must keep up to the standards of the old.
Sometimes, this "Boheme" comes fairly close. The two women are generally very good. The two buffo roles are taken by two different singers for the first time in this production; Don Bravo (Benoit) and James Ramlet (Alcindoro) are both capable, though neither erases the memory of Francois Loup. They have very different styles, and there is a value in having two clearly distinct personalities in these roles. The other supporting roles present no serious problems, the chorus (prepared by Stephen Crout) is excellent, and Francis Rizzo's revised surtitles are actually an improvement on those of the 1984 edition, which were the first surtitles used by this company and among the first in the United States.
The most painful contrasts of present with past are in the role of Rodolfo and the stage direction. Jerry Hadley, the 1981 and 1984 Rodolfo, has gone on to become an international star of the first magnitude and one of the world's leading exponents of that role, which he has recorded with Leonard Bernstein. Antonio Ordonez, the incumbent Rodolfo, has a pretty good voice, though not quite equal to Hadley's, but shows no interest in acting except as a way of moving, occasionally, from one part of the stage or one time-honored pose to another. His characterization of the ardent young poet not only lacked depth, it nearly lacked a surface.
Part of his problem may have been lack of firm stage direction. Substantial segments of Menotti's original conception remain in the work of stage director Roman Terleckyj, who was Menotti's assistant, and some moments still have a lot of the original bright, fresh impact and emotive power. But often the effect is so diluted and distorted that the memories it evokes border on being painful. Two examples are the Bohemians' horseplay before Musetta's entrance in Act 4 (a sort of impromptu puppet show followed by a mock sword fight), and the end of Act 3, where Rodolfo and Mimi march off into the snowy darkness, backs to the audience, singing with worldly-wise tenderness about how they will stay together until the spring. The problem is not merely that many in the audience have seen these moments before but that they have seen them done with style, precision and a firm sense of timing and spatial relationships.
In this revival, the stage direction often manages to be busy and static at the same time -- a remarkable achievement that can be produced only by eliminating focus from the concept and momentum from its execution. Gian Carlo Menotti will be back later this season directing his own opera, "The Saint of Bleecker Street." Meanwhile, this sad memento of his "Boheme" is a reminder of how much he has done for the Washington Opera.