It is probably true that no serious opera company could survive if it did not mount Puccini's La Bohème every other season or so. Of course, a school opera program is not faced with the same budgetary compulsions, and can expose student performers to a wide range of literature. Paradoxically, though, part of their training should let students experience popular operas in which many will eventually be working as career professionals.
In a final twist, for a school program to tackle one of the most beloved of all mainstream operas can be daunting, given the heightened expectations raised by audience familiarity. University Opera program has met that challenge with admirable success in its first production this season.
An immediate handicap is the very small size of the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium stage in UW Music Hall, where La Bohème opened Friday night. It is an admirable place for the first and forth acts, set in the bohemian friends' Parisian garret. But the Paris gate and tavern of act three do require a little more room than could be managed, while the Café Momus scene in act two was conceived as a multi-focus crowd scene, and productions like that of Franco Zeffirelli for the Metropolitan Opera have accustomed us to it as grand spectacle. The UW staging of that act is the most cramped and, accordingly, the least convincing. (The military parade that ends the act never appears but is seen by those on stage as if out in the audience.)
Nevertheless, the sets of Liz Rathke make a valiant effort to fit the action. Above all, director William Farlow has been able to muster a remarkably able and consistent young cast, indeed an extensively complete double cast. I saw that of the opening night. Shannon Prickett as Mimi presented a very rich voice, full of color, though somewhat blurred Italian diction. Lindsay Sessing was vocally just a little shrill as Musetta, but she had both the soubrette coloring and sprightly spunk needed to bring the character to life.
As the hero Rodolfo, Aldo Perrelli sang with a genuinely Italian lyric tenor coloring, though sometimes lacking in the full strength needed for the role. With a mellow and appealing baritone voice, Michael Roemer is the only Marcello, and a winning one; likewise alone in his role, Benjamin Schultz is a bass of real power as Colline. He and the Schaunard I saw, John Arnold, have created really distinct characters out of their roles. Among the lesser players, Christopher Apfelbach creates absolutely delightful vignettes in his miniature turns as the blowzy landlord Benoit and the ridiculous sugar-daddy Alcindoro.
It is not only their vocal endowments that bring these singers (and their alternates) to such a fine level of accomplishment, but also the very careful staging by Farlow, who exploits a full range of clever touches, even in the smallest details. The acting works very convincingly through the first three acts, but in act four the cast outdoes itself. I have never before seen the antics of the four bohemians given such a really funny staging - creating that much sharper a contrast to the scene of Mimi's death, itself splendidly moving. Puccini created a consummate tearjerker in this scene, and it is still very effective when done so well as it is here.
James Smith is able to whip the University Symphony into a thoroughly capable ensemble. Never for a moment is one distracted by the feeling that this is merely a student orchestra.
This is a production that again demonstrates the really wonderful student talent being drawn to the UW Music School. Remaining performances are on Sunday, Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m.