Opera is a complex musical genre, and sometimes simplicity is the best approach. This past weekend, Boheme Opera NJ used simplicity to its advantage in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, presented Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The College of New Jersey. Boheme Opera NJ brought together a cast of experienced and polished singers to make the most of an opera which did not have the best of premieres, but which has become a favorite of the repertory since then.
La Bohème premiered in 1896, when Puccini was at the height of his popularity, but reception to the initial performance was mediocre at best. Audiences found the storylines “inconsequential,” but the 100 or so intervening years have endeared the stories of the four “Bohemians” and the tragic Mimi to opera fans worldwide. Based on an Henri Murger novel, which in turn incorporated characters modeled on real individuals, La Bohème brought these characters to life with Puccini’s rich melodies and lush harmonies.
The four “Bohemians” — poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard — have struggled to survive on little money in their Paris loft. To some extent a 19th-century operatic version of Friends, La Bohème follows these four characters and their two principal love interests — Mimi and Musetta. In Friday night’s production, artistic director and conductor Joseph Pucciatti updated the time to 2014, complete with laptop computer props and costumes of jeans and leather jackets. The time may have changed, but the challenges of starving artists have endured, and with a few tweaks to the dialogue, Boheme Opera NJ’s production remained close to Puccini’s original.
Musically, the unusual aspect to the four principal male characters is their voicing. Puccini scored Marcello and Schaunard as baritones and Colline as a bass, saving the tenor voice for Rodolfo, whose ill-fated romance with soprano Mimi forms the dramatic core of the opera. Baritones Eric Dubin (Marcello) and Charles Schneider (Schaunard) were very similar vocally, sounding almost indiscernible when singing together. Mr. Dubin was a bit hard to hear at times over the orchestra, but when called for, soared over the accompaniment. Mr. Schneider played the role of Schaunard with good character, lyrically singing about the mundane details of everyday life. Bass Martin Hargrove proved time and time again the richness of his voice as Colline, especially commanding the stage in the fourth act soliloquy aria Vecchia zimarra. However, by the time Colline decides to sacrifice his favorite coat for the sake of heroine Mimi, it is too late for the fragile seamstress, sung by Erica Strauss.
Ms. Strauss has a solid background in 19th-century opera, including performances with the Metropolitan Opera. She was in total control of the role, proving that she could float high notes well, spinning the sound until the ends of the phrases. Her chemistry with Rodolfo, sung by tenor Benjamin Warschawski was solid, as Mr. Warschawski sang with such ease that one felt his voice could go on forever. He sang his first act aria, Che gelida manina, to Mimi with tender affection, making the most of a tenor range which Puccini used for dramatic impact. Marcello’s love interest Musetta, sung by soprano Sungji Kim, came onstage in Act II as a saucy and presumptuous character, and took the stage immediately with a real vocal edge to her sound. Ms. Kim’s waltz aria Quand m’en vo quickly endeared her to the audience as she lured Marcello into her web.
To accompany the opera, Joseph Pucciatti had assembled a full orchestral ensemble which, although overwhelming the singers at times, kept the musical pace moving along. In return, the lead singers were exact in their rhythms with the players. Boheme Opera NJ has established a new relationship with Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart to provide singers for the children’s chorus, which Erin Camburn had well prepared to sing cleanly and energetically. Digital set designer J. Matthew Root made simplicity work on the stage of the Kendall Theater, with a few pieces of furniture creating a complete scene, aided by a digital screen providing simple but elegant graphics of starlight, snow, and other backdrops.
Boheme Opera NJ is celebrating its 26th anniversary of presenting two full operas each year. Producing opera is a complicated and expensive venture, but in its new home at The College of New Jersey, Boheme Opera should find performance life comfortable.