Puccini's La Boheme is the perfect opera in an era of short attention spans. The action, condensed into four short acts, moves swiftly from hunger to satiation, from innocence to painful reality; the characters develop at similar speed from strangers to lovers, from lovers to ex-lovers to renewed lovers.
The marvel of the opera is that it's all perfectly credible - in an effective production, that is. To open its 29th season, the Annapolis Opera offered such a production over the weekend at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
Moving confidently through the old-fashioned, modest-budget sets was a young, vocally able cast. This group had no trouble suggesting playful young bohemians in search of physical and emotional pleasures. There was a tight rapport within the ensemble, directed by Braxton J. Peters in fluent, basically by-the-book fashion (except for an amusing, timed-to-the-music bit that had Musetta using the contents of a water glass against Marcello in Act 2).
Marcie Ley did not always command a broad palette of vocal colors, but her singing as Mimi had admirable intensity Friday evening. She made much of words and every opportunity Puccini provided for an expansive, lyrical thought. Her death scene was particularly affecting.
As Rodolfo, Scott Priest revealed a pleasant, firm tenor that was perhaps most impressive in soft passages, when he filed the voice down to a sweet sound. He also rode out the biggest orchestral waves with ease. (It sounded, from both the main floor and the balcony of the theater, that he and most of the others had some help from amplification, but a spokesperson for the company said yesterday that there was no miking.)
Jennifer Ayres was a vibrant Musetta, with a strong hint of mezzo darkness in her soprano giving the famous waltz a sexier-than-usual spin.
Andrew Krikawa's Marcello was warmly, sturdily sung. Christopher Flint delivered Colline's coat aria in eloquent phrases that needed only a little more weight in the tone to support them. Christopher Hutton (Schaunard) and Adam Schulz (the dual roles Benoit and Alcindoro) proved assets. The chorus sounded determined but had its share of troubles with coordination and tonal blend; the orchestra, too, encountered more than a few potholes.
Ronald J. Gretz conducted with an appreciation for the score's ebb and flow, not to mention its most emotional points, but control over the performance occasionally slipped away from him. What kept things going in the pit was the same spirit and respect for Puccini that kept them going on stage.