If the primary purpose of opera is to transport us beyond the ordinariness of our quotidian lives to a heightened emotional plane, then the cast of this Brevard Music Center production of Puccini’s La Bohème succeeded mightily. Even though La Bohème is one of the most often produced operas in the repertory, audiences never seem to tire of it, and with its succinct story line, small cast of finely etched characters, and sumptuous score, what’s not to like? Sitting in the vast open-air Whittington-Pfohl auditorium on a humid summer evening at the dress rehearsal (always open to the public as a ticketed event), I detected the usual excited and supportive charge in the air for the cast (the home team?), and they did not disappoint. From the downbeat we were whisked to the Latin Quarter of Paris and experiencing the chill of that Christmas Eve when two lovers meet, fall in love, and the die is cast.
Based on Henri Murger’s picaresque novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1848), Puccini’s opera was the result of the composer’s collaboration with Luigi Illica, (scheme and dialogue draft), and the poet and playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, who composed the verse. The opera premiered in Turin in 1896 to unfavorable reviews that carped on the opera’s “comparative restraint” and “a certain falling-off of invention after the emotional ardour of Manon Lescaut.” And while the opera grew in popularity among audiences both in Europe and abroad, it was shunned for years in Vienna due to the resistance of Mahler, who favored Leoncavallo’s more realistic La Bohème, which had premiered in Venice in 1897.
Puccini’s opera was set in the 1830’s, but for this production we were fast-forwarded into the Paris of 1925, home to illustrious artists and witness to a sea of creative and scientific inventiveness. Rodolfo typed his scripts in lieu of penning them. The stage design consisted of an omnipresent parenthesis of inwardly leaning buildings, as though the urban city with its poverty and its cold pressed unremittingly on its inhabitants. The Bohemians’ garret looked very much like the gleeful squalor of a college dorm room, complete with bunk beds.
Occasionally, BMC’s Janiec Opera Company is augmented by imported soloists for the leads, usually gleaned from larger opera training programs. However, for this opera the company was able to cast the entire production in house. Naomi Ruiz (Indiana Univ.) starred as Mimì, and Daniel Hinson (UNC Greensboro), as her poetic lover Rodolfo. Sarah Starling (Queens Univ.) played the role of Musetta, a boisterous, saucy flapper and polar opposite of the frail and fading Mimi; Brian Hotchkin (Roosevelt Univ.) sang the role of the painter Marcello, her lover. Completing the quartet of “Bohemians” were Andrew Hill (Univ. of Houston) as the musician Schaunard and Max Wier (Rice Univ.) as philosopher Colline. The pit BMC orchestra was superbly conducted by Maestro David Effron; stage direction was by Michael Ehrman. The opera, in four acts with two intermissions, was sung in the original Italian with English supertitles.
In order fully to appreciate the production, one must realize that the entire cast had a mere two weeks of rehearsal with everyone present, a real high wire act (sans net). Knowing this, I was prepared for a stiff production, characters rooted in pre-set positions, and gaffes of ensemble work. Instead, the opera flowed with a polish and sureness that only comes with experienced professionals who are accustomed to pulling things together in short order. The cast was universally accomplished both vocally and dramatically, the timing and movement on stage beautifully choreographed, and the audience was swept up in the humor and tragedy of this great work. The sight gags and other buffoonery really worked, producing belly laughs from the audience; the music of the street band at the end of Act II came as a delightful surprise from the auditorium lobby. Most importantly, this was an ensemble that clearly understood the essence of Puccini’s style. No one around me left early, and instead of hearing the drone of the odd car leaving the parking lot, there was the rapt silence of absorption, katydids the only noisemakers.
The intermingling of faculty and student instrumentalists, experienced opera singers with younger students, is at the heart of the educational mission of the BMC, and is one of the reasons for its success. Learning large amounts of repertoire for performance in a short amount of time can only be accomplished if one is inspired and motivated by those around them, a fact this enthusiastic audience appreciated and acknowledged.
This was the fourth and last stage production of the six-week BMC season. Previous productions this year were Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Lerner & Leowe's Camelot, and Leonard Bernstein's Candide. The production of La Bohème is slated for for performance on August 4 at 7:30 p.m. Don’t miss it!
*We are pleased to welcome Dr. McDowell as a guest critic in the pages of CVNC. She is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Department at Brevard College in Brevard, NC. She also teaches Music History and Literature, and Secondary Piano. She has performed on harpsichord and recorder for the Colonial Williamsburg Restoration, and more regularly with the Cullowhee Consort, an early music ensemble active in western North Carolina. As writer she was a contributor to Carl Maria Von Weber: A Guide to Research (Garland Publishing, 1990), and editor of Nicolas Payen: Motets and Chansons (A-R Editions, 2006). She earned a B.M., Music History, from Converse College, the M.A. in Historical Musicology, Columbia University, and Ph.D., Historical Musicology from Florida State University. In addition, the Zertificat Deutsche als Fremdsprache, Goethe Institute, Salzburg, Austria, and Certificate in Early Music, Florida State University.