Berkshire Festival Opera’s La bohème celebrates youth, talent and ingenuity

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Berkshire Opera Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Brian Garman (conductor). Berkshire Opera Festival, The Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA, 1.9.2023. (RP)

Evan Lazdowski (Colline), Benjamin Taylor (Marcello), James Dembler (Benoît), Yongzhao Yu (Rodolfo), Ethan Vincent (Schaunard) © Ken Howard

Director – Jonathon Loy
Sets – Stephen Dobay
Costumes – Brooke Stanton
Lighting – Alex Jainchill
Hair and Make-up – Beckie Kravetz
Chorus master – Geoffrey Larson

Marcello – Benjamin Taylor
Rodolfo – Yongzhao Yu
Colline – Evan Lazdowski
Schaunard – Ethan Vincent
Benoît, Alcindoro – James Demler
Mimì – Whitney Morrison
Parpignol – Seth Allen
Child – Jade Lugo
Musetta – Véronique Filloux
Customs Officer – Jonathan Lawlor
Sergeant – Andrew Boisvert

Berkshire Opera Festival’s fully-staged production of Puccini’s La bohème was as beautiful as it was moving. Youth is not an essential ingredient to make this opera work, but it helps, as did the style and talent that the cast had in abundance.

Jonathon Loy’s production was traditional but imaginative and witty. The garret, where Mimì and Rodolfo first meet and she ultimately returns to die, was faithfully rendered. Marcello’s bold, abstract paintings were strewn about the small white room. As Mimì lay dying, the paintings were turned one by one so that the entire room became an unadorned white sepulcher enshrining Mimì and Rodolfo’s love.

The Colonial Theatre’s stage is small, and Loy filled it with tables and chairs, a lively cohort of children and all the hustle and hubbub of the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve. The audience experienced the excitement of the soldiers passing through the square from the expressions on the faces of everyone on stage. Nary a soldier, however, was to be seen.

Evan Lazdowski (Colline), Ethan Vincent (Schaunard), Yongzhao Yu (Rodolfo), Whitney Morrison (Mimì), Benjamin Taylor (Marcello), Véronique Filloux (Musetta) © Ken Howard

Snow fell softly as workers and farm women went through the gates of Barrière d’Enfer in the early morning in Act III. In other words, all was just as it should be.

Loy’s deft directorial touch in drawing sharp characterizations from the cast was present throughout. Brian Garman, who conducted the performance, also had a role in the that. The physical and the musical combined to create some particularly fine portrayals, most notably in the Mimì of Whitney Morrison and Evan Lazdowski’s Colline.

Morrison’s sumptuous voice fit Mimì’s lyrical, soaring vocal lines like a fine kid glove. There was a grandeur to her impoverished seamstress as well as a sense of humor. Morrison giggled as she explained to Rodolfo that she had no idea why she was called Mimì when her name was Lucia. As he did with all the singers, Garman would quiet the orchestra to a mere hush, so that Morrison could express the softest sentiments in tones to match.

Her Rodolfo was the fine lyric tenor Yongzhao Yu. His voice has both an Italian warmth and a touch of squillo that suits the role so well. Yu was perhaps a more reticent Rodolfo than many tenors who assume the role, but no less passionate or compelling.

As Marcello, baritone Benjamin Taylor sang with a warm, rich tone throughout the performance. His take on Marcello was rather stoic, although Véronique Filloux’s spitfire of a Musetta set his blood boiling. Filloux’s Musetta was both temptress and tease, qualities which the soprano displayed brilliantly in her sparkling ‘Quando me’n vo’. This Musetta was also compassionate and kind, which added to the heartbreaking poignancy of the final scene.

There was nothing of the usual shaggy-haired, befuddled philosopher in Lazdowski’s stylish and robust Colline. His rich bass bloomed in ‘Vecchia zimarra’. Again, Garman kept the orchestra in check so that Lazdowski could conjure sorrow in the softest of tones and most lyrical singing. Ethan Vincent’s robust Schaunard rounded out the quartet of dreamers. James Demler brought depth to the roles of the equally put-upon Benoît and Alcindoro.

It was not only in the opera’s quieter moments that Garman and the orchestra shone. The sounds that emerged from the pit seethed alternately with passion and despair. Under Garman’s baton, the orchestra assisted the singers in articulating and painting the text, so carefully were the notes placed and played.

The Berkshire Festival Opera Chorus sang robustly and had a field day portraying the various denizens of Paris cavorting on Christmas Eve. Energy abounded whenever the children’s chorus stepped onto the stage.

Since 2016, BFO has brightened the last days of summer with exceptional productions of operas both old and new. This year’s La bohème was no exception.

Rick Perdian

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