Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème has been done so often that it takes a lot to bring new life to the old repertory war-horse. It takes great voices, believable youthful looks wouldn't hurt - and the advantage of the type of ensemble that can grow over a series of performances with the same cast guided by imaginative direction would "ice the cake." All these elements were present in the splendid May 18th performance by the Virginia Opera Association in Richmond's rococo Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts. This capped an outstanding season that I first sampled with their astonishing touring Die Walküre - which I attended but did not review - and then Giordano's Andrea Chénier and Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, which CVNC covered in glowing terms.
All the lead singers had fine voices, outstanding diction and projection and both believable looks and acting. However two were exceptional beyond expectations. The Marcello of bass-baritone Grant Youngblood was the finest live performance that I have seen in the region (I have lost count of how many I have seen). He is truly a "native" North Carolinian in several senses since he is from Lumberton and of Lumbee Indian descent. I have praised his vocal qualities ever since I reviewed his Orff Carmina Burana with the Greensboro Symphony as well as a Duke University Messiah , both in late 2001. Coupled with his even resonant voice was an easy natural acting style. The even and individual voice of tenor Jonathan Boyd as Rodolfo was delightful as was his equally natural actions on the stage. His tenor was well supported throughout its range with a fine ring to its top. Best of all, he did not try to copy the sound of some of today's super stars. His Rodolfo was the only one I thought of while he was on stage.
Lyric soprano Karen Driscoll was outstanding as Mimì, believably conveying her deteriorating health as well as her longing for a "happy spring." Her emotional complexity was communicated through small telling details as well as voice. Her Act I scene with Rodolfo was unusually convincing, culminating with a beautifully blended duet. Her deathbed scene was even more devastating than usual.
Coloratura soprano N'kenge Simpson-Hoffman certainly wasn't a wallflower as the flirtatious Musetta. Her Café Momus scene was over the top with her, at one point, flirting with everyone of Marcello's male friends in an effort to get Marcello to explode with the degree of jealousy she felt she deserved. She milked her "Quando me'n vo soletta" for its considerable worth. All the productions that I can remember have had Musetta's voice come from within the tavern at the beginning of Act III. Stage Director Bernard Uzan emphasized the causes of Marcello's jealousy by having Simpson-Hoffman sing her brief lines as she entered on the arm of another wealthy Gentlemen.
Baritone Eric Greene's Colline combined clear diction with graceful body language. He had a dancer's natural grace on the stage, and his moving "Vecchia zimarra," his goodbye to his prized coat before he left to sell it to get money for Mimì, was a gem. The character Schaunard has less chance to show off, but baritone Terence Murphy made the most of relating the comic death of the parrot for which he had been hired to play.
Character tenor Alan Fisher is one of those jewels that an opera company is lucky to have to flesh out "minor" characters whose telling details can add so much to a performance. We admired his L'Abate and L'Incredibile in the VOA's Andrea Chénier . He brought similar qualities to the part of Bohemians' landlord, Benoit, as well as Musetta's rich admirer, Alcindoro. How delightful not to have a callow youth in heavy make-up. In an unusual touch, director Uzan ended the Act II scene with Alcindoro hitting it off with a member of the chorus while Musetta was still on stage with the Bohemians. All other productions I have seen have had the gang leave hastily and the old man arrive late - and have a fit at getting stuck with both bills.
Dan Saunders conducted a stylish, well balanced and naturally paced performance, securing polished ensemble playing and fine solos from the members of the Richmond Symphony in the pit. On this occasion, I noticed that long time Eastern Music Festival Principal Cellist Neal Cary led the three cellos. In a personal note in the program, Saunders revealed that this opera "held a special place in (his) heart" since it was the first opera he worked on as a new rehearsal pianist hired by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the Zeffirelli production with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, José Carreras, and Richard Stilwell.
Stage director Bernard Uzan managed perfectly to blend both the dramatic and musical elements to bring all the Bohemians to life, making each so real that the audience instantly connected with them. The few unusual touches did not work against the composer's intentions. By the time the touring company had reached Richmond, the characters were second nature to the cast.
The drama was focused in part due to the apt and intimate scale of the sets by Scenic Designer Allen Charles Klein. The Bohemian's room had a more human scale than many productions I have seen. The Café Momus set was much more closely concentrated on the sidewalk café than usual, showing just a portion of the street nearby. The effective lighting was by John Stephen Hoey.
Virginia Opera Association's pre-concert lectures are always worth attending since they are given by Assistant Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Walsh who, among other duties, coaches the singers in their roles. On this occasion, he related the sources, Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger and its subsequent play by Murger and Théodore Barriére, linking the real-life composite characters to those in the opera. Using the piano, he played the key themes for each character along with examples of Puccini's masterful musical transformations of the themes in later acts.
Next season ought to attract many opera lovers. Last fall's fine Siegmund, tenor Thomas Rolf Truhitte, will sing in the opening Madama Butterfly and the closing Fidelio . Carpenter Performing Arts Center ought to be a perfect venue for an intimate Die Zauberflöte . Grant Youngblood will return in Rigoletto , along with Jane Redding as Gilda. Susan Marie Pierson, last heard as a splendid Brünnhilde, will return as Leonore in Fidelio .