WV Symphony Orchestra: La Boheme

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra performed The Rome H. & Bessie Walker Opera Theater production of La bohème at The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences in Charleston, WV on May 16th, and I had the privilege of attending.

I consider myself a fan of opera music, but I had never been to an actual opera before. So I was initially disappointed to learn this would only be a semi-staged production. In the program for the event, conductor Grant Cooper courteously explained the reason behind the limited production – namely the financial strain a full opera would have imposed on the symphony during this economic downturn.

Fortunately, the lack of costuming and set design did not detract from the power of the opera at all. Rather, the absence of visual distractions seemed to emphasis the beauty of the music and the power of the singers’ voices. And the WV Symphony’s impeccable instrumentation provided the perfect accompaniment for the singers without taking away from the action on stage.

I tried to familiarize myself with the history of Giacomo Puccini’s four-act opera in preparation for the performance. The libretto of La bohème is partially based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, but Puccini apparently changed much of the plot for his opera. Though the title, setting, and entire basis for the opera were French, the opera itself is sung in Italian.

La bohème tells the story of a group of poor artists living in 19th century Paris, and centers on the relationship between poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì. Their turbulent love is only part of the story, as it is revealed that Mimì has tuberculosis. Those of younger generations are probably most familiar with the characters and plot of La bohème as the basis for the musical (and subsequent movie) Rent.

La bohème‘s Mimì is of course Rent‘s Mimì, and poet Rodolfo corresponds with musician Roger. The painter Marcello in La bohème was split into the two characters of Mark and Joanne (who is also partially based on La bohème‘s state councilor Alcindoro) in Rent. La bohème‘s seductive singer Musetta is Rent‘s Maureen, musician Schaunard became Angel, philosopher Colline is Tom Collins, and landlord Benoît is Benny. Even the songs of Rent were born from scenes in La bohème – such as the candlelit meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo that obviously inspired “Light My Candle”.

I include these parallels between Rent and La bohème in hopes of drawing younger fans to the opera. It seems most people I know turn up their nose at the mere mention of “opera”, because they think it’s boring or they believe it’s beyond their comprehension. I must admit that learning the similarities between Rent and La bohème provided cliff notes for me, which enabled me to easily follow along with the opera even though I don’t speak Italian (though the Symphony was kind enough to project English subtitles above the stage). And the Symphony’s modernization of the costumes and setting of La bohème made it seem even more like its Broadway counterpart.

Jeffrey Springer was the perfect choice for Rodolfo. His deep and robust voice reminded me of John McCormack or Placido Domingo, which are not comparisons easily found these days. Jeffrey Madison as Marcello, Steven Stull as Shaunard, and John Shuffle as Colline also gave competent performances, and all of the male singers revealed their comedic talents in the opening scene of the final act.

Charleston’s own Roger Lucas portrayed the toy vendor Parpignol, while the crowds in The Latin Quarter marketplace and Café Momus were composed of singers from the Appalachian Children’s Chorus and WV Symphony Chorus. Tim Jerome revived his role as Benoît, who he played in director Baz Luhrmann‘s production of La bohème. Jerome has also appeared in several films, including Cradle Will Rock, Everyone Says I Love You, and SpiderMan 2.

Yet it was unquestionably the female leads who owned the stage. Vicki Fingalson played a very vivid Musetta with a confident strut, glittering hot pink dress (and matching stilettos), and gravity-defying trills.

Barbara Shirvis’ magnificently understated performance as Mimi held the audience captive throughout the entire evening, particularly her aria “Mi chiamano Mimì” and her stunning duet with Springer of “O soave faciulla”. Her powerful, pristine, and utterly pitch perfect voice filled the auditorium and soared from floor to rafter without even a hint of shrillness.

Shirvis was the subject of several gushing conversations I overheard during intermission. And she immersed herself so deeply into her character that I heard several sniffles in the audience during Mimi’s final scene. I was shocked to read in the program that this was her debut performance as Mimi, because she seemed as comfortable in the character’s skin as if she’d been inhabiting her for years.

As for the venue…The Clay Center‘s 1,883 seat Maier Foundation Performance Hall may be small compared to other auditoriums in the city, but the vertical design is perfect for an opera. Because the structure of the auditorium puts height ahead of width, every seat has a good view of the stage and the acoustics are superb.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited during the actual performance, but I took pictures of the empty auditorium during the orchestra’s rehearsal before the program. And I found the following public domain (a.k.a. free and legal) recording of Puccini himself singing “Che gelida manina” from La boheme at Archive.org:

Giacomo Puccini – Che gelida manina (mp4) *

*public domain recording hosted by Archive.org