Review: Fresh, youthful ‘La Bohème’ scores big points

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Puccini’s “La Boheme” is made for young, fresh voices with a youthful stage presence. Sure, some of the greatest sopranos, tenors and baritones in the history of the art form have sung the key roles. But one of the most memorable performances I have ever experienced was at La Scala in Italy in 1988. We bought tickets months in advance. Pavarotti canceled. So did Freni and Carlos Kleiber, the conductor.

We saw the sort of cast that one would expect in the provinces. None of them was like the missing superstars, but the music sounded so fresh, the characters so vernacular and believable, that we walked out of there on air.

I flashed back to that while watching Aspen Opera Theater Center’s “La Boheme,” which opened Thursday night at the Wheeler Opera House. The student cast reflected the attitudes of real 19th-century Paris Bohemians (though in 20th-century clothing). The two leads, soprano Tracy Hsin-Mei Chang as Mimi and tenor Rafael Moras as Rodolfo, wielded voices that could go beyond simply singing the notes to making emotional contact with the audience.

Moras’ ringing tenor rose to the top of not only his arias but ensemble after ensemble. Chang’s soprano could be girlish one moment and richly powerful the next. Their love duet in Act I and reconciliation duet in Act III tugged at the heart without sacrificing vocal acumen. Soprano Pureum Jo as the flamboyant Musetta stole the Cafe Momus scene, using her star-quality face and body both for humor and to underline the character’s extravagant vocal lines.

They and the entire cast inhabited their roles with little artifice. Though the rest of the cast did not rise to their level vocally, there was plenty of stage presence to go around. Each scene had its own fresh improvisatory feel, from the hijinks of the male Bohemians to the group fussing around Mimi as she came to her end.

Conductor Garrett Keast clearly knows his way around this score, bringing out the pulse and musical shapes with an ear for both the singers and the drama. Edward Berkeley, who heads the opera program in Aspen, directed with an eye for the telling gesture and with little wasted motion or distracting effects.

This is a “Boheme” well worth seeing. Performances continue tonight and Monday (the annual benefit evening).

In earlier events this week, Midori offered a distinctive take on one sonata and two partitas by J.S. Bach for unaccompanied violin. She seemed determined to hew to a “historically informed” style, holding the bow higher, avoiding vibrato, generally favoring delicacy over power. The results were mixed.

In the A minor Sonata No. 2, which opened the evening, wobbly intonation underlined the lack of vibrato a bit too much at first, but the Allegro finale burst out of the gate and never slackened to a breathless finish. The B minor Partita No. 1 took off with much more precision and traced the dance rhythms with more spring and bright effect. A little more judicious vibrato helped in the lovely Sarabande.

The E major Partita No. 3, with its familiar Gavotte and Bouree, made an interesting comparison with Augustin Hadelich, who played the same piece last week on his program. Where he relished the “danciness” and colored his tone brilliantly, Midori kept things more buttoned-down, as if finding the music through a more distant lens. This was charming rather than dazzling.

Tuesday night Joyce Yang, a regular Aspen visitor and a former student here, applied her high musical intelligence and command of form to works by Scarlatti, Debussy, Granados and Rachmaninoff. She can draw from the piano big, rich and broad passages without going over the top, and soft and velvety pianissimos, using the dynamics to give phrases shape and life.

Although there was little crystalline sound to staccato phrases, fine legato playing drew out the through-line deftly in four Scarlatti sonata miniatures and in the grander moments of the Debussy pieces. Two Granados works could have used more guitarlike delicacy, but they created a compelling momentum.

She was best in Rachmaninoff, especially the powerful Piano Sonata No. 2. This is a piece that can lurch from episode to episode, but she pulled it all together into a cohesive narrative. Earl Wild’s arrangements of the composer’s songs “Dreams” and the famous “Vocalise” brimmed with color. For an encore, she went back to Wild for his touching arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”

The Monday chamber music evening in Harris Hall offered a sterling Beethoven Cello Sonata in G minor from cellist Eric Kim and pianist Anton Nel that hit all the right spots and provided a cleansing counterpoint to the 30 minutes of microtonal anger, angst and grief expressed by Schnittke’s Piano Quintet. They played it well, but it was a difficult go for both performers and listeners (as first violin Paul Kantor aptly noted). In between, an all-student wind quintet brought out all the charm of Milhaud’s faux-medieval suite from “La cheminee du roi Rene.”


Midori headlines Sunday’s festival orchestra program with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Vasily Petrenko conducting. And Yang is back Monday to anchor a piano quintet by Dvorak. Today in Harris Hall the afternoon faculty chamber music program includes a Brahms Piano Trio and a Romance for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano by festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher. It’s two-piano fare this evening from Arie Vardi and Yeol Eum Son, including a concerto by Bach and transcriptions of a Beethoven concert and Schubert symphony.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.