Photo by Lucid Frame Productions for Virginia Opera. Elaine Alvarez as Mimí and Jason Slayden as Rodolfo in Virginia Opera’s La Bohème.
Photo by Lucid Frame Productions for Virginia Opera. Elaine Alvarez as Mimí and Jason Slayden as Rodolfo in Virginia Opera’s La Bohème.

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On Saturday evening, as the world was still reeling with news of the horrific terrorist attacks that devastated Paris, Virginia Opera took the stage at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax with La Bohéme, an opera that often reads like a love song to the City of Lights. The news of the previous day’s attacks made director Kyle Lang’s somewhat dreary production, with its crumbling buildings and muted coloring, feel more mournful than it might have on any other day.

According to the program notes, Lang chose to update the opera’s setting to 1939, when Europe was at the brink of war, but the bleak set design suggested a bombed-out city just emerging from, or even in the midst of, World War II. Even the famously bustling Café Momus scene seemed drab in spite of the children’s chorus, the cheery toymaker Parpignol, and Musetta’s attention-hogging antics. Slow tempi throughout the scene, especially in Musetta’s coquettish aria, Quando m’en Vo, didn’t help the matter.

But the core of La Boheme is, of course, the romance between Rodolfo and Mimì, performed admirably by Jason Slayden and Elaine Alvarez. The pair’s onstage chemistry was apparent from the moment Mimi entered Rodolfo’s apartment asking him to light her candle. Slayden brought Hollywood looks and a rich but youthful voice to his role, as he charmed Mimi with his aria Che Gelida Manina. Alvarez, with a bigger, steelier voice than many of today’s Mimìs, faltered a bit in her demure first aria, but bloomed in the more dramatic third act aria Donde Lieta Usci, and through the luscious duet that follows, where her voice soared over the orchestra.

As Marcello, Edward Parks stole the show. His chocolatey baritone filled the house with ease, and his warm, charming portrayal of Rodolfo’s best buddy seemed to invite the audience into the Bohemians’ inner circle. Playing opposite Parks was Zulimar López-Hernández, whose over-the-top Musetta was simultaneously bubbly and tempestuous.  Although her voice seemed a bit anemic, getting lost in the orchestra at times.

Rounding out the sextet of Bohemians were two members of Virginia Opera’s Herndon Foundation Emerging Artist program, Andrew McLaughlin as Schaunard and Keith Brown as Colline both gave exuberant performances.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jake Gardner, the scene-stealing bass-baritone who appeared first as the heavy-drinking landlord Benoit, and then returned as Musetta’s flustered sugar daddy Alcindoro. Gardner is a true buffo—an operatic clown, in the best sense—his brief appearances lit up the stage as each of his characters were hoodwinked by the mischievous Bohemians.

In the pit, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, led by Maestro Adam Turner, was a bit sluggish at first, but thankfully came back with more energy in the second half as the opera turned from lighthearted to tragic.

Even with a fairly lackluster performance of La Bohéme, it’s still easy to feel emotional during the tragic final scene, as the orchestra swells up around Rodolfo’s pained cries of “Mimì! Mimì!” and the young group of Parisian starving artists, encircling the limp body of their friend, realize how frail their way of life is—a sentiment that, in the wake of Friday’s attacks, rang especially true.

La Bohéme will have its final shows on Friday, Nov. 20 and Sunday, Nov. 22 at the Carpenter Theatre in Richmond, Va. Tickets and info here.