Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 26
 
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
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Music/Theater

Princeton Festival Comes Into Its Own With Fourth Season Opener “La Bohéme”

Nancy Plum

It can take a new opera company or festival a decade to really get rolling. Granted, the Princeton Festival had a bit of a base from the former Opera Festival of New Jersey, but it was still a commendable surprise to see how far the company has come in its very polished production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohéme on Saturday night at McCarter Theatre. The cast assembled for this production, which will be repeated June 27 and 29, was so natural in its interaction with each character that the audience felt immediately pulled into the drama.

La Bohéme is based on a typically 19th century tale of pathetic sickness and unrelenting sadness, yet the Princeton Festival interpretation of the French story (presented in Italian with English supertitles) found much warmth and humor in the camaraderie among the characters.

The four principal male characters of La Bohéme could have been Princeton University suitemates just as easily as flatmates and artisan friends in a poverty-stricken French Quarter. The characters of Colline and Schaunard, played by bass Stephen Bryant and baritone Matthew Hayward, respectively, were the perfect gossipy friends to detract artist Marcello and writer Rodolfo from their work. Mr. Bryant was effective as a character actor, and Mr. Hayward was a sufficiently smug and suave musician, as well as the only one who seemed to be bringing any money into the happy quartet.

Baritone Marcelo Guzzo, singing the role of Marcello, was passionate about his art work and love of Musetta and effectively struggled with his own demons and keeping his friend Rodolfo balanced. Singing in his native Italian also gave Mr. Guzzo a head start on successfully interpreting the text. Tenor Adam Diegel, singing the lead role of Rodolfo, clearly captured the audience with his vocal passion and ease onstage. With the looks of a young Charles Bronson and the sensitivity of every girl’s favorite high school crush, Mr. Diegel sang his way into the hearts of both Mimi (Nicolle Foland) and the audience.

La Bohéme will play on Friday June 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday June 29 at 3 p.m. at McCarter Theatre. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (609) 537-0071 or visiting www.princetonfestival.org

Although the initial meeting and immediate falling in love between Mimi and Rodolfo may have appeared a bit contrived by today’s standards, the seemingly natural chemistry between Ms. Foland and Mr. Diegel made their scenes work well. Like Mr. Diegel, Ms. Foland sang with evenness and clarity up and down the register, and Ms. Foland’s voice was especially well matched by the upper winds, including very sweet trilling flutes at one point.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan portrayed Musetta, Marcello’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, with humorous Paris Hilton-esque style, including a poufy dog. Ms. Zetlan sang with full control over her character’s sauciness as she lured Marcello back into her web. Her dinner companion, Alcindoro, was sung by Jason Budd with true comprimario humor and flair.

In addition to great leads, the key to a good opera production is often in the background — what the “extraneous” characters are doing while the leads are carrying the scene. Director Steven LaCosse and Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled onstage a large cast of adult and children choristers, all of whom were well-prepared and animated. The children’s chorus, prepared by Dawn Golding, was especially solid and dynamic.

Large casts usually mean many costumes, and designer John Lehmeyer managed to find variety and authenticity in costuming this large number of people. La Bohéme was presented in four acts with an intermission between each to change the scenes. Although the combined intermission time was substantial, Alan Charles Klein’s sets were complex, giving the performers a lot of room and many props with which to work.

The orchestra assembled for this production proved to be solid and accurate, with the many internal instrumental solos played sensitively. Conductor Tang Yuk kept tempi moving along exceedingly well, and the orchestra remained unobtrusive, yet supporting.

Princeton Festival has chosen for the theme of its season this year “La Belle Èpoque,” an era considered a “Golden Age” and an era of advancement.

With a full slate of performances scheduled over these weeks in June, Princeton Festival may be entering its own “belle èpoque” as the Festival leaves its infancy behind and reaches toward its full potential.

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