The real stars of the Washington National Opera’s new production of La Bohème don’t show up on stage, or if they do, not until the curtain call: Jo Davies, who produced it; Lee Savage, who designed the set; and Jennifer Moeller, who did the costumes. WNO has been on a new-productions-of-familiar-operas kick lately, and operas don’t get any more familiar than La Bohème. Companies usually have a couple of options when putting on big crowd-pleasers: Bring in someone famous for the opera buffs who want to see how Diva X does their favorite aria, or throw some crazy curveball, like the Salzburg Festival’s minimalist, Daliesque Traviata, which was staged with a tiny Anna Netrebko and a giant clock. WNO does neither. Instead, it invests everything in a conventional but totally impressive staging, which works wonders at covering up the pedestrian singing.
At Saturday’s opening, the set itself got two ovations, at the second act’s bustling Latin Quarter and the third’s snowy toll gate at Barrière d’Enfer. The transition from the first act to the second—opening up from a cramped, squalid apartment to an eye-popping simulacrum of a Paris street scene, complete with a café, dancing kids, parading soldiers, and Charlie Chaplin—was just as breathtaking as any Bohème would aspire to be.
And if you’re not equally blown away by the singing and the music—you know, the main attraction for most operas—you’ll still go home happy. There are no drastic flaws among the performers (WNO has two rotating casts; the cast reviewed here returns on Nov. 7, 9, 12, and 15), but only one of them gives a truly superlative performance: Joshua Bloom, a richly sonorous bass, as Colline. The rest of the singing is workmanlike and often, particularly in the first act, drowned out by the orchestra conducted by Philippe Auguin, who has trouble balancing the dynamics between the horns and everything else.
As a story, La Bohème’s appeal rests on elements usually called timeless and less charitably called clichéd. They were, in fact, already clichéd by the time the opera was first staged: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto uncomfortably shares key plot points with Giuseppe Verdi’s earlier La Traviata, down to Mimi’s Mysterious Opera Disease that serves to make the central romance appropriately tragic. But the tale resonates with anyone who’s lived in a shitty group house and struggled to pay rent (such that the musical Rent was based on it). This one is in Paris (here, for no particular reason, in 1919), but it could easily have been Mount Pleasant in 2014, and the four chronically broke deadbeats inhabiting it—a poet, a painter, a philosopher, and a musician—could be, say, a blogger, a freelance graphic designer, a grad student, and, well, a musician. Naturally the blogger is the handsomest of the bunch, so he gets the girl, the beautifully afflicted Mimì. As Mimì, Corinne Winters evokes wonder, mischievousness, lovesickness, and just plain sickness with a tender soprano, and works well in duets with her on-again, off-again boy Rodolfo, played by tenor Saimir Pirgu. But other times they’re restrained, bobbing barely above the orchestral surface, along with bloodless baritone John Chest as Marcello.
An overemphasis on staging—accompanied, unintentionally, by an underemphasis on singing—is becoming a signature of the WNO under Francesca Zambello’s direction, and points to what other critics have picked up as a general trend in the genre: a musical-ization of opera (and vice versa). Purists won’t like it, but it’s not such a bad thing. These larger-than-life sets, the kind more often seen on Broadway than at the Kennedy Center (two recent WNO productions involved steamboats) are an asset, providing spectacular visuals to draw in new crowds without offending the old. Assuming, of course, the music doesn’t take too much of a backseat to all that eye candy.
In Italian with English surtitles. 2700 F Street, NW. $25-$310. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org