Opera Review: New Nashville Opera ‘La Boheme’ One to Cherish

2014 Boheme 16In Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème love can be found in a look and a kiss. In Nashville Opera’s exquisite new production it’s also found (among other places) in the voices and even the set.

General and Artistic Director John Hoomes has helmed this 1896 comic-dramatic-tragic homage to amore several times over the course of his distinguished career. When Nashville Opera last performed it in April 2009 I wrote that “Midsouth opera lovers don’t have to travel far to see good productions of the best opera has to offer.”

That’s still true, but as much as I enjoyed that production I savored Thursday’s opening performance of this one even more. Why? Because the cast of incredible up-and-comers combined with a terrific Peter Harrison set, sublime Barry Steele lighting, an impeccable Nashville Opera Orchestra sensitively led by conductor Jerome Shannon and other contributions made me feel there was nowhere else I’d rather be in terms of seeing an opera staple done well.

Those fortunate enough to see and hear tenor Noah Stewart as Rodolfo will have bragging rights for years to come: “Oh yes, I saw him in his Nashville Opera debut,” they’ll say after his latest stop at Covent Garden (his 2012 debut there was critically acclaimed), the Met or La Scala. Think I’m overdoing my praise? Well, once you hear the mature grace, power and purity of Stewart’s voice throughout his range, see his acting ability and note his handsome form you’ll know I’m not. From the soulful eloquence of his Act I “Che gelida manina” aria to his anguished cry of “Mimì! Mimì!” at the finale Stewart pierced our hearts like love’s arrow from Cupid’s bow.

2014 Boheme 31And the gorgeous woman playing Mimì was no less impressive – I felt as if I was being gently and sweetly carried through the air on a soft and comfortable cloud whenever soprano Danielle Pastin sang. Her voice is strong but supple; it confidently and passionately carries the song and story along, whether it’s the charming “Sì Mi chiamano Mimì” introduction to her character or Act III’s heart-rending “Donde lieta uscì.” May this be just the first appearance she makes for Nashville Opera.

Stewart and Pastin’s talent is coupled with visible stage chemistry in their duets. Act I’s “O soave fanciulla” was just the first taste of how wonderfully they combined to create a lasting memory for the audience – one could believe that it was love at first sight, and knowing as many of us do how it would end could exhale at the end, moved by their affection but saddened it would not last.

2014 Boheme 14The support for these shimmering stars is excellent. The vigorous voices and sharp acting of baritone Craig Verm (Marcello) and soprano Heather Buck (Musetta) return to Nashville Opera after their acclaimed appearances in The Pearl Fishers last season; both handle heavy and light moments well, and the “Quando me’n vo” – a tune familiar from many films, advertisements as well as the Della Reese hit “Don’t You Know?” that’s more commonly called “Musetta’s Waltz” – is a sheer delight.

2002 Mary Ragland Young Artist Eric McKeever has his mellifluous baritone in fine form as the musician Schaunard; bass-baritone Peter Johnson makes the most of his two comic turns as the landlord Benoit and the rich old fool Alcindoro. Bass Paul An’s Act IV moving rendition of “Vecchia zimarra” when Colline decides to pawn his coat after Musetta has goes to sell her earrings for Mimi’s medicine is as truthful as it gets.

Now to that terrific set. Harrison has achieved the delicate balance between reality and theatricality in his design – from the worn features of the Latin Quarter garret where we first meet Rodolfo and his chums to the colorful Parisian street where Café Momus sits as cultural center and the stone-walled Barrière d’Enfer toll gate where winter’s icy grip holds sway, Harrison’s work is so convincing one instantly feels a welcome part of La Bohème’s 19th Century world as the curtain rises. (It’s also exciting that the set built expressly for this production can now be rented out, providing additional income for the nonprofit opera company. And – other opera companies take note – this design triumph isn’t just an artistic success; it’s a practical configuration of parts that are reused throughout, meaning it only takes one truck to transport the entire set, which in an era of tight budgets should make it highly sought after for subsequent productions.) Robert Gilmer’s props complement Harrison’s work by reinforcing its vibrancy.

CafeMomusBohemeIlluminating that great set is the ever-engaging lighting of Barry Steele. A moon box lighting effect constructed for this show is particularly compelling and the varied hues and subtleties of his lighting calls (as in past productions) frame moods with appropriate complexity – he knows as well as anyone that a constant wash of light simply isn’t good enough.

Pam Lisenby has shown her usual fine judgment in coordinating the beautiful costumes from Baltimore’s A.T. Jones and Sons; Sondra Nottingham’s wigs and makeup complete the look perfectly. And the poised Nashville Opera Ensemble led by Chorusmaster Amy Tate Williams, more-than-ably assisted by Michael Rutter’s supernumeraries (special shout-out to juggler Ted Joblin and the adorable Sasha Bella!), once more add the spice to the tasty opera stew so impressively overseen by Hoomes.

This La Bohème from the talented community of artists known as Nashville Opera is one to cherish. We are fortunate far beyond words to have this superb company in our city.

Nashville Opera’s production of La Bohème (sung in Italian with projected English supertitles) directed by John Hoomes concludes at 8 p.m. Saturday in TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.)  Hoomes will lead a free Opera Insights preview in the theater one hour before the performance. Tickets (starting at $26) are available at the TPAC box office downtown, by calling (615) 832-5242 or (615) 782-4040 or clicking here. Will call tickets can be picked up at the Jackson Hall lobby box office after 5:30 p.m.

2014 Boheme 32*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).