- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

Last Friday, the Wolf Trap Opera Company presented a highly effective though minimalist performance of Puccini’s classic opera, “La Boheme,” at the Filene Center.

Although billed as a “concert performance,” it was significantly more than that.

The company’s young singers, rather than appearing in tuxes and gowns with scores in hand, instead materialized in costume and in character, playing their roles in an imaginary setting supported only by a few tables, chairs, and props.

Oh, and the National Symphony Orchestra turned in a lush, understated performance under the baton of Stephen Lord.

Based on a picaresque series of stories by French writer Henry Murger, “La Boheme” focuses on the lives of a virtual commune of starving young artists who still somehow manage to have the time of their lives in 19th century Paris.

Whether done up in period costume or updated to the present, “La Boheme” — and its compellingly late-Romantic score, washed by Puccini with impressionistic pastels — sums up for successive generations the very essence of being young, when friendship and romance is all, when money matters little, and when the whole world is your playground.

But in “La Boheme,” the fun comes crashing down in the finale. Clowning around like children, Rodolfo and his artist friends must suddenly confront something they’ve been strenuously trying to avoid — the tragic death of Rodolfo’s estranged mistress, the fragile Mimi.

The loss of youthful innocence, this is the somber essence of “La Boheme.” And the Wolf Trap Opera’s young singers, under the skilled direction of Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, passionately convey it, even with minimal scenery. Each soloist sang with great conviction and all were quite adept at avoiding, for the most part, those dead spots in the Filene Center’s amplification system that occasionally trap the unwary.

Tenor James Valenti was a realistic Rodolfo, romantic, impetuous, yet immature when confronted with unpleasant realities. His voice already has a good deal of heft to it, something easy to discern even amidst the Filene Center’s sometimes-treacherous acoustics.

As his love interest, Mimi, soprano Melissa Shippen turned in a charmingly understated performance in a difficult role. While Mimi is “Boheme’s” female lead, she is also weak and consumptive. (Mimi faints at her very first entrance). Contemporary opera audiences expect more dramatic realism these days, so a modern soprano can scarcely deliver a robust performance yet remain in character. Miss Shippen, however, adjusted thoughtfully to the challenge with a well-supported instrument as adept in solos as it was in her duets with Mr. Valenti.

Soprano Kristin Reiersen added necessary spitfire as the coquettish man-eater Musetta, interpreting her as a charismatic gold-digger with a surprisingly generous heart. Miss Reierson’s sprightly, athletic performances of Musetta’s famous Act II arias were highlights in an already appealing evening.

As Rodolfo’s best buddy, Marcello, baritone Brian Mulligan gave an impressive, well-articulated performance. Poised and assured, he added an agreeable vocal heft to the ensemble.

In lesser roles, baritone Markus Beam (Schaunard) and bass Morris Robinson (Colline) also sang skillfully, particularly Mr. Robinson in Colline’s famous “Coat” song in the finale.

The final chance to catch the Wolf Trap Opera’s talented young singers happens at The Barns on Friday when the ladies of the company present a recital titled “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” highlighting party pieces from Mozart to Gershwin.

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