- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

Puccini’s immortal musical masterpiece, “La Boheme,” which follows the romantic misadventures of impoverished, aspiring young artists, has never lost its resonance with audiences since its 1896 premiere.

The Wolf Trap Opera’s semistaged production at the Filene Center on Friday evening seamlessly transported the action from 19th-century Paris to 21st-century Brooklyn. (Rodolfo, for example, taps out his poetry on a laptop.) But the glorious spirit of the opera never skipped a beat.

Updating is hardly a novel idea for “Boheme.” Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway version, as well as the spotty musical “Rent” traversed this territory before. Two seasons ago, Polish director Mariusz Trelinski treated Washington National Opera audiences to his gritty New York-style staging of the work, resplendent with its snazzy, neon-lit Cafe Momus. But in many ways, Wolf Trap does it better.

Modestly conceived for a modest budget, Wolf Trap’s updated production made use of projected graphics and a bare-bones set to create an Internet-cafe milieu. This effectively forced Wolf Trap’s young cast to re-create the artistic moment relying almost solely on their vocal abilities and acting chops.

Not to worry. The well-rehearsed principal singers — ably supported by the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society, and the Alexandria Choral Society’s Children’s Choir — came ready to play, uncorking one of the most emotionally gripping performances of “Boheme” we’ve seen in many years.

“La Boheme” focuses on the mercurial affair of the poet Rodolfo and the consumptive Mimi. As Rodolfo, tenor Diego Torre was simply smashing. Built like a beer-loving construction worker you’d see at a local watering hole, Mr. Torre hardly seemed a conventional romantic lead. Yet most guys in the audience could easily identify with this Everyman. His passion was real, his heartbreak was immense, and his commanding, gloriously sculpted instrument makes him an up-and-coming talent to be watched.

His Mimi — soprano Hana Park — was his physical opposite, small and delicate, as befits the role. Lithe, supple, with consistently lovely phrasing, Miss Park’s expressive voice, however, told another tale — strong and emotional in the early innings, but faltering and weakening as the end approaches, leading to a genuine three-hanky finale. This unlikely looking romantic duo could easily outpoint many more famous singers.

The supporting cast, particularly the coquettish Musetta (soprano Ava Pine) and her much put-upon Marcello (baritone Daniel Billings), backed up the leads in character roles that were convincingly acted and sung. Ditto for baritone Matthew Hanscom (Schaunard) and bass Carlos Monzon (Colline) who was most affecting when he bade a solemn farewell to his beloved coat (“Vecchia zimarra, senti”), sold to buy medicine for Mimi.

Our only complaint — the sound mixing. Opera in the Filene Center, alas, must rely on amplification due to the facility’s vast, open spaces. This worked brilliantly for the singers about 95 percent of the time. But the NSO and the backstage choral forces, all under the baton of Stephen Lord, sounded muffled. Puccini’s ravishing instrumental and choral scoring is integral to this opera, and the combined forces performed it with perfection. If only we could have heard them a little better.

★★★½

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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