Fresh Look for ‘La Boheme’ as Nashville Opera Opens Season

CafeMomusBohemeYes, it’s La Bohème: starving bohemians and a tragic consumptive in 19th Century Paris. But this beloved opera is getting a fresh look as Nashville Opera opens its 2014-15 season Thursday.

“We received a very generous gift from (the Three of US Foundation) for the express purpose of building this new production of La Bohème,” General and Artistic Director John Hoomes explains. “When the curtain goes up the audience will be seeing this set for the very first time anywhere and we’re very excited about that!”

New York-based designer Peter Harrison, whose sets have adorned theater and opera productions around the country, worked to create the visual look that Hoomes wanted for this production. That colorful set (seen in part at the top of this article through a photograph taken during a dress rehearsal this week) has the flavor of a panoramic film placed onstage, according to the director: “I’m really using a widescreen effect, with action across the whole of the space. When something’s going on at one end, there’s something else going on at the other end. It’s going to be very cinematic.”

BOHEME Act I sketchThe cinematic look (such as in a sketch for Act I by Harrison shown above) doesn’t go against the Giacomo Puccini score or the Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica libretto, though. “Act I is more intimate and (Harrison) has worked to pull the action in but once we get to Act II it expands out,” Hoomes explains. “It’s a very Grand Opera-sized piece, but what we were careful to do even with the large size is keep a feeling of elegance and intimacy throughout the entire piece.

“The piece ultimately is very romantic. I think there’s elegance to the music Puccini wrote for this; even though it’s about starving bohemian artists, they have elegant, poetic souls. I wanted the set to reflect that as well.”

The new set may be part of an artistic vision, but there is a practical aspect to it that Hoomes is understandably happy about as well. “We own this set, so we’ll be able to rent them to other opera companies around the country. As a nonprofit, we’re always looking for ways to increase our earned income and revenue, and one thing we’ve started to do is create or acquire sets and rent them. It has helped our bottom line greatly,” he notes.

Boheme2Tenor Noah Stewart and soprano Danielle Pastin make their Nashville Opera debuts as the poet Rodolfo and the embroider Mimi. Both are up-and-coming talents and Hoomes is delighted they are available for this production; the director, who figures this is his ninth time helming La Bohème here or elsewhere (the last time here was in 2009), says he worked with Stewart on one of those out-of-Nashville presentations “about five or six years ago.

“Since that time his career has taken off. He’s sung in opera houses around the world…and he’s turned into a legitimate rising opera star…he is the best, and you’re going to see him skyrocket.

“Noah is wonderful. He’s very athletic, good-looking and has a very fine voice.”

And Pastin is every bit a leading performer too. “She sounds the way I always felt Mimi should sound. She has a lot of weight to her voice, but it’s not heavy, and she also has a lot of sweetness, and beauty, in her voice. Her high notes are fantastic. Mimi is very different vocally than Butterfly, Tosca or Turandot…and her voice is right for this role.”

Boheme4The cast also includes baritone Craig Verm as the painter Marcello and mezzo-soprano Heather Buck as the flirtatious Musetta; both appeared in last season’s critically-acclaimed production of The Pearl Fishers. Bass Paul An (last here for Madame Butterfly) is the philosopher Colline and baritone Eric McKeever (La Traviata for Nashville Opera) plays Schaunard the musician while bass-baritone Peter Johnson doubles as the landlord Benoit and a state councilor named Alcindoro in his first appearance with the company. Jerome Shannon, who led the orchestra for Nashville Opera’s Andrea Chenier in 2010 and has had several productions of La Bohème under his baton, returns as conductor.

Originally set in the 1820s when it was first performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy in 1896, Hoomes has placed this revival in late Victorian times “because I wanted a feeling of that period with perhaps a bit of Dickens in the streets.” He thinks the set, costumes from A.T. Jones and Sons in Baltimore, the use of a moon box lighting effect and Barry Steele’s imaginative light design combined with other elements will conjure that period in audience members’ minds.

The fresh look excites Hoomes, but La Bohème will always have a special place in his heart whether the set is new or not. “I count the seasons until I can do it again,” he says. “I either do it here or someone hires me to do it elsewhere – I just love the piece.” And what does he think makes it one of the opera world’s lasting favorites? “The story is universal,” he replies. “It has comedy and romance and tragedy and everyone can relate to those things.”

Nashville Opera’s production of La Bohème (sung in Italian with projected English supertitles) directed by John Hoomes plays at 7 p.m. Thursday and 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 each 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.

Here are several production photos taken by Reed Hummell:

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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).

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  1. […] 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 […]