“La Bohème” is everybody’s favorite opera. It may not be your favorite, or my favorite; but mention it to a crowd of opera-goers and you’ll hear stories of childhood experiences, first tears in the theater and magical Christmas seasons capped by the Metropolitan Opera’s spectacular Café Momus scene, snow and children’s chorus and champagne and all.
The Washington National Opera’s last “Bohème,” in 2007, which was before my time, reportedly did its best to rough up this perennial favorite with an edgy production set in a contemporary nightclub. Pouring oil on the waters, the company’s new production, which opened at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, is only gently updated and with all the traditional accouterments: attic, Paris, crowds and drifts of fake snow spiraling down from the flies.
It’s far from great theater. But it gives plenty of room for the conductor (the WNO’s music director, Philippe Auguin) to work authoritative magic in the pit, and it provides the sense of continuity that some opera-lovers thrive on. This may not be entirely your grandmother’s “Bohème,” but your grandmother would probably enjoy it.
Peter Kazaras, who took over the production from Jo Davies, the originally scheduled director, followed what was presumably his predecessor’s template for a gentle and wholly inoffensive updating; some audience members may overlook entirely the difference between Puccini’s original 1830s setting and the post-World-War-I era presented here. One main feature is the drab muddiness of the costumes by Jennifer Moeller, a palette of grays and browns and blues blending together in the Momus scene, expressive of postwar deprivation but a little flat theatrically. The updating has little effect on the story; Colline walks with a cane, presumably as a result of a war wound, but this was far less notable than the vivid singing of Joshua Bloom in the role, one of many artists making his company debut in the WNO’s two casts.
The staging itself was restrained to the point of torpor. The Act I love scene was utterly static, ending with the two principals standing by the window out of view of a good part of the audience before simply strolling off stage, anticlimactically. The chorus in the Momus scene was deployed in blocks, with a few gratuitous dancers to give the impression of movement on a crowded stage. In Act III, as Rodolfo and Mimì sang about waiting until spring, the snowflakes transformed into cherry blossoms, a heavy-handed metaphor. There were, however, some strengths: the horseplay of the bohemians in Act IV, usually tedious and forced, was a lot more natural than usual, and the seamless transformation of the ugly garret in Act I to the streets of Paris in Act II offered some genuine theatrical magic. (“Awesome! That is so cool!” effused my 11-year-old companion.)
Reviewing the first night of a 14-performance, two-cast run sometimes feels unfair; over in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the musical “Little Dancer” is getting a couple of weeks of previews before the critics are allowed in. I say this because I think both of the leads of Cast A are better than their singing in Act I on Saturday made them appear. The tenor Saimir Pirgu sounded strained and colorless; Corinne Winters, a soprano who’s getting a lot of attention these days, a little small-voiced and vocally plain. Both got considerably better over the course of the evening, with Winters’s voice blooming and Pirgu’s strengthening, and the balance with the orchestra arguably working itself out better.
It was certainly a democratic cast, in that all four bohemians seemed, for once, about equally matched, dramatically as well as vocally. John Chest was adequate as a long-haired Marcello, but Steven LaBrie complemented Bloom, and evened the balance, as a strong Schaunard. Alyson Cambridge sang reliably as an attention-grabbing and slightly overdone Musetta — though there were few dramatic subtleties in this “Bohème,” so it is perhaps unfair to single her out in a role that in any case demands excess.
The program book offered an inventive and welcome twist by writing about the lives of some of the cast members, including members of the Domingo-Cafritz program, who will sing one performance of the work on Nov. 14. Nothing onstage backed up this kind of relevance; musically, Auguin and the orchestra emerged with a stronger and more colorful profile than any of the cast. This could well improve on a second night, or with a different cast; but perhaps it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure this is a “Bohème” for aficionados, however you slice it. But it gets the job done, and “Bohème”-lovers can go home happy.
The Washington National Opera production runs through Nov. 15, with alternating casts, at the Kennedy Center; the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists offer an additional performance on Nov. 14.