- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

The days of empty pockets, a bottle of wine, a book of verse and a pretty girl have returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House at least for the next two weeks, as the Washington Opera presents its new production of Giacomo Puccini's beloved "La Boheme."

A little over a hundred years ago, Puccini's fourth opera followed on the heels of his successful "Manon Lescaut," cementing for many his growing reputation as Verdi's up-and-coming successor. The characters of "La Boheme" are modeled on those in Frenchman Henri Murger's novel, "Scenes de la vie de boheme," which, it is thought, faithfully charts the lives of the author's artistic friends.

"La Boheme" is a slice of life, portraying a band of struggling artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 19th century. Chief among these are the poet, Rodolfo, and the painter, Marcello, who fall passionately in and out of love with two young women. The painter is attracted to the flirtatious, gold-digging Musetta, while the poet falls for the consumptive seamstress, Mimi, who wanders into his garret with a sputtering candle one evening as he is leaving to join his friends. After separations and reconciliations, Mimi returns to Rodolfo in the end to die in his arms in a sudden, depressing finale that leaves scarcely a dry eye in the house.

Broadway has tried to retool this venerable classic, pandering to the lowest common denominator by mounting such ridiculous rip-offs as "Rent," but there's nothing like the original. Puccini did it best.

"La Boheme" contains some of the composer's most ravishing and endearing music, loaded with raucous humor and high emotion. While the focus of the opera is the passionate affair of Mimi and Rodolfo, the supporting cast, particularly the coquettish Musetta and the much put-upon Marcello, must be equally strong to serve as foils for the stars.

Ably directed by Sandra Bernhard (not the bleeding edge actress/comedienne), this spare, realistic, well-paced production was originally designed for the San Francisco Opera. The Washington Opera platoons two different casts of young singers during this run, chock-full of winners from Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition. Each cast has its distinct charms, but on opening weekend, one cast clearly outshone the other.

Cast 1, led by tenor Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo, was firing on all cylinders on opening night. After the usual early tempo stumblings so common these days on under-rehearsed opening nights, this proved a lovely, well-balanced evening of opera. Rodolfo and his associates were clearly pals, and their admission of Mimi to their all-boys club was genuine and touching in a rough, masculine way, making this a really sympathetic ensemble.

Mr. Machado's Rodolfo was impetuous, passionate, good-hearted, but endearingly inept in love. A small, barrel-chested singer, Mr. Machado produced a surprisingly powerful tenor, loaded with subtle coloration. He inhabited his character, giving new life to a sometimes hackneyed role. A fine actor, he was believably devastated in the tragic final scene.

Mimi is a challenging role. While containing many opportunities for lyric beauty, the part also forces the soprano to project herself as a rapidly declining consumptive, and she cannot let out all the vocal stops in the finale and remain believable. Youthful soprano Eugenia Garza was moving, projecting herself as a timid, loving girl who doesn't deserve the problems she gets. Her Act I love scene with Mr. Machado was magical, while her death scene was appropriately underplayed and affecting and brought out the hankies en masse.

As painter and best buddy Marcello, baritone Alfredo Daza was superb, a loyal friend, and above all, a fine singer whose clean lower range and fine acting added real depth to a part that is often treated superficially.

Willowy soprano Kelly Cae Hogan was delightful as the coquettish Musetta, who is mistress of many beds but possesses a heart of gold for those in need. Malcolm MacKenzie was amusing in his small role as the musician, Schaunard. As Colline the philosopher, baritone Orlin Anastassov was poignant as he bade a solemn farewell to his beloved coat ("Vecchia zimarra, senti"), to be sold to buy medicine for Mimi. The orchestra, conducted by Eugene Kohn, generally blended Puccini's colorful music well with the singers, rarely washing over them.

Cast 2, which debuted during the Sunday matinee, was, unfortunately, less effective and seemed at times under-rehearsed. Led by the more brooding Rodolfo of tenor Konstyantyn Andreyev, the male characters' camaraderie seemed forced at times, only appearing genuine in the Act IV pillow fight.

On the whole, the male voices seemed weaker in this ensemble, although part of this may have been the fault of conductor Giovanni Reggioli, who frequently allowed the surging orchestra to completely blow away his singers, perhaps, at times, disconcerting them. Things seemed a bit toned down by the finale, but the damage was done, and we hope it's not repeated.

Mr. Andreyev's portrayal of Rodolfo was a bit of a mystery. Unlike Mr. Machado, he often faced away from the audience, appearing strangely distant, even in the finale, from his tragic muse and mistress. His Rodolfo was ably sung but infrequently heard, at times the victim of Maestro Reggioli's orchestral miscalibration. As his sidekicks, baritones Vladimir Moroz (Marcello) and Andrey Grigoriev (Schaunard), and bass Vitalij Kowaljow (Colline) were decent, correct, but at times underwhelming. The guys in this cast just seemed to lack the vim, vigor and passion of Cast 1.

The ladies, however, largely redeemed this second cast. Soprano Elena de la Merced was a fiery and invigorating Musetta, and soprano Virginia Tola who surprisingly stole last season's entire production of "Carmen" in the small role of Michaela shone brightly again here in the role of Mimi. Her interpretation was not, perhaps, as emotionally moving as that of Miss Garza, but her bright and brilliant voice shone through with clarity and sparkle and was the only voice in this cast able to soar consistently over the heavy-handed orchestral playing.

WHAT: The Washington Opera in Puccini's "La Boheme"

WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Cast 1: Mon. at 7 p.m., Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. Cast 2: tonight at 7, Tues. at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $41-$285

PHONE: (202) 295-2400

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