'La Boheme' a true pleasure

November 22, 1996|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's the most often told story in opera: Boy meets girl; they fall in love, then break up but are soon reunited; girl dies. Rodolfo, a poet, and Mimi, a seamstress, are the protagonists of Puccini's 100-year-old evergreen "La Boheme," in repertoire at Washington Opera.

First produced and directed in 1981 by Gian Carlo Menotti, this revival of "La Boheme" reflects contemporary tastes for staging it and does it better than most other major companies. Few distractions interfere with the slowly unfolding pleasures given by the ravishing arias. Comic moments are kept droll without actually ever becoming funny, even though there's slapstick in the score; and Menotti, through his assistant Roman Terleckyj, called for realism in the acting. Written at the dawn of our own age of modern sensibilities, "La Boheme" doesn't submit to much alteration.

The picture-postcard sets, designed by Zack Brown, almost swallow the drama. It's uncanny how the sets capture 19th-century Paris exactly as we all romanticize it. Brown's sets are perfect in their own way -- but we're left with hollow impressions, like snapshots from someone else's trip.

With so many lump-in-throat arias, a listener can forget the orchestral score itself is a gem, so active and restless as it sets up and comments on the stage action. Daniel Oren, an Israeli conductor gaining recognition in the world's opera houses, drew outstanding playing from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Mimi grows progressively tubercular as the plot unfolds, yet Daniela Dessi sang the role in reverse, gaining strength and singing at her peak it the final two acts. As Rodolfo, Vincent La Scola carried his top notes with cautious success and was dramatically engaging. Jeffrey Black as Marcello and Stefano Palatchi as Colline brought personality to their parts. Mark Oswald was a resourceful Schaunard with his strong, vibrant bass voice.

One of the most endearing arias in the opera world, "Quando me'n vo," is sung by Musetta, that flirty, spoiled brat. Oxana Arkaeva was more gritty in timbre than one wanted for this songbird lullaby, though her directness fit the part. There was no drop-dead beautiful singing from this cast, but together they made a fine ensemble.

"La Boheme," running through Nov. 30, is sold out.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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