La Bohéme, Washington National Opera
Before making his debut at Washington National Opera in La Bohéme, Australian Jewish bass Joshua Bloom stopped rehearsals because he couldn’t work with one of his onstage partners – a chicken.
In Act I of the Puccini favorite, Bloom’s character, Colline, a philosopher, tears into the food and drink his musician roommate, Schaunard, has brought home to the drafty Paris attic they share with two other starving artists, Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a writer.
First, the opera’s props department gave Bloom a plastic chicken for this onstage feast, followed by a rubbery meal he described as “allegedly real chicken.” After that, the singer had had enough, and he insisted on bringing in a “proper chicken,” which he proceeded to devour on stage last Saturday night for the opera’s premier, attended by a sold-out crowd that included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
(No, reported Bloom, the chicken he brought to the Kennedy Center wasn’t kosher. “Sharing, as it did, a table cloth with a plastic lobster, probably wouldn’t have been technically kosher anyway.”)
Said director Peter Kazaras, who is also Jewish: “It took chutzpah to do that.” But Kazaras, who has closely studied the text of the opera in a manner benefitting a lawyer-cum-opera director, understood Bloom’s need for realism.
Bohéme is, after all, more than an opera staple; it is a prototypical example of the post-Romantic verismo (true to life) style associated with Italian 19th-century composers Puccini, Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Giordano (Andrea Chénier).
As the chicken episode revealed, realism, but not hyperrealism, was on the menu for Kazaras’ production, his first for the company. “The thing that is most important to me is specificity; it ups the emotional ante, makes the punches even greater. You can believe that Mimì is dying.”
I did believe, on Saturday night, when soprano Corrine Winters, a Frederick native, sang the part of the tuberculosis-ridden seamstress who falls in love with the passionate and penniless scribe Rodolfo. It cannot be easy for a singer to fill the Kennedy Center Opera House without the aid of mics and while collapsed in a bed (“Te lo rammenti”), or propped up by a tree, or buttressed by her lover’s arms.
Under Kazaras’ direction, Winters wisely avoided the “park and bark” performance all too common in opera. Her illness, love for Rodolfo, exasperation at his incurable jealousy and, finally, death in his arms, were more real to me than perhaps with any Mimì I have seen onstage (this was my sixth Bohéme). She was helped in that regard by the meticulous acting of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo, and by their palpable onstage chemistry (something that cannot be faked). Oddly, though, this pair, despite their obvious physical chemistry, did not blend well vocally, not even in their ecstatic outpouring of love in Act I’s “O soave fanciulla,” the most recognizable and melodic song in the score.
This important scene had another major problem. At the conclusion, the lovers walked so close to the edge of the set, nearly pressing their faces against the attic window, that they could not be seen by some portions of the audience.
The following day, when the alternate cast was brought in, and Russian soprano Tatiana Monogarova and Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov were installed in the lead roles, a completely different dynamic emerged. Lost was the chemistry of their counterparts, as when a gust of winter wind extinguishes a candle. Indeed, Monogarova appeared so confident, poised and lively throughout the production – sitting up perfectly straight while dining at Café Momus, gesturing with her hands – that I could scarcely believe she was dying until the moment, in Act IV, that she did expire.
Monogarova appeared to be enjoying herself onstage, and, in doing so, she vitiated the entire drama. Poor Dolgov, who didn’t find much of an acting partner in his co-star. But oh, how sublime they sounded together in every song, particularly in “O soave fanciulla.”
Therein lies the dilemma for audiences. See the first cast and be immersed in the story. See the second cast and be dazzled by the voices.
What is constant in this production are solid performances in smaller roles – especially American baritone John Chest as faithful friend Marcello and Italian buffo bass Donato DiStefano as the sugar daddy who gets stuck with a mammoth restaurant bill as his date, Musetta, runs back into the arms of her bohemian boyfriend – and intelligent conducting by Philippe Auguin.
Bohéme is not a showy score. In service of the narrative, which lacks any big scenes, action or climaxes, the music is subtle and restrained, perhaps the reason why it left audiences so unsatisfied when it premiered in Turin in 1896.
Here, Auguin wisely resisted accelerating the tempo or upping the orchestra’s volume to compensate, trusting the audience to care about these characters, as Puccini did. Kazaras, for his part, did the same, risking depressing the audience with a soul-crushing visual palette – a dim, grey attic, grey soldiers’ uniforms, grey, dead trees.
But Kazaras did allow himself a few flourishes, as when the bohemians’ attic dissolves effortlessly into a bustling, Parisian street, complete with crowded balconies. Later, in Act III, when Rodolfo embraces a shivering Mimì at the city’s gates, and the two lovers look forward to the coming spring, the barren trees behind them suddenly burst forth with cherry blossoms. At the premiere, two women sitting behind me gasped with delight at this effect.
It was only a fleeting illusion, though, as Rodolfo and Mimì’s is truly a winter’s tale.
La Bohéme is onstage now through Nov. 15 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are available by calling 202-467-4600 or at www.kennedy-center.org/wno.