BSO’s stripped down ‘La Boheme’ puts music above spectacle

Posted April 27, 2016, at 1:10 p.m.

Life in the garrets of 1830s Paris was cold and lonely for the city’s young bohemians. They burned their own poems to ward off the cold and longed for a fiery love to keep them warm.

Their joys and sorrows delighted the sold-out audience Sunday at the Collins Center for the Arts as the Bangor Symphony Orchestra marked its 120th anniversary with a production of the opera “La Boheme.” It was the first time the BSO has presented an opera complete with costumes and sets.

Conductor Lucas Richman and his staff spent a year planning the production of Giacomo Puccini’s well-known musical saga. The orchestra, singers and designers joined forces to create an enchanting production that rarely faltered. It was a lovely and much-appreciated gift for the symphony’s loyal supporters and the community.

Director Loren Lester and Richman cleverly conceived a production that emphasized music over spectacle and emotion above pageantry. By stripping “La Boheme” of its theatrical trappings, the audience got caught up in the characters and their stories.

Tenor John Bellemer and soprano Emily Birsan portrayed star-crossed but doomed lovers Rodolfo and Mimi. Their voices intertwined like vines. Birsan’s Mimi was a woman with a tenacious soul but delicate constitution too fragile for bohemian poverty. The soprano’s beautifully balanced voice so charmed theatergoers that some wept at Mimi’s demise. Bellemer’s tenor voice was strong, resonant and charming.

Bellemer and Birsan were tragically sweet, but it was Jamilyn Manning-White as Musetta who clutched the audience in her hand and held it close to her heart. Musetta is a bold free spirit with a taste for expensive things bohemians can’t afford, whose soulmate is Rodolfo’s roommate, Marcello. Manning-White is blessed with a stunning soprano voice, but her true gift is an onstage charisma that makes it impossible not to watch her.

She easily could have overpowered Dan Kempson’s Marcello, but instead the two engaged in an intricate vocal tango that gave depth to their characters on-again, off-again romance. Kempson’s sumptuous baritone gave Marcello a depth Puccini may not have envisioned for the struggling painter.

Members of the Bangor Area Children’s Choir and the University of Maine Singers and Oratorio Society joined the cast in Act Two to fine effect. The production’s only flaw was how long it took to make the scene changes between acts. The small screen above the stage onto which English translations were projected was helpful to those new to an opera sung in Italian and not intrusive.

With the orchestra onstage, it was not possible to build complex sets. Instead, charming drawings by Eleanor Kipping were projected onto a huge screen behind orchestra. They included a view out the garret window, a Paris street scene and the gates to the city from outlying farms and houses. The singers performed in front of the orchestra with a few set pieces including tables, chairs, a bed and a door.

The lush costumes, designed by Patricia Hibbert, more than made up for the lack of a set. Scott Stitham’s precise lighting design perfectly illuminated the performers while keeping the orchestra in shadow.

“La Boheme” was a triumph for Richman and the BSO. Since taking the reins of the orchestra in 2010, the maestro has consistently challenged its players and supporters to hold tightly to tradition but to experiment and embrace change as well. Puccini’s love story showed the orchestra and its audience can accomplish both.

As rousing as “La Boheme” was for symphony and opera fans, the lineup for next season is absolutely thrilling. A sixth masterworks concert in January, featuring BSO cellist Noreen Silver performing F.J. Haydn’s Concerto No. 1 in C Major, has been added to the traditional five.

The season will begin with a concert of 20th century music including George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” A February concert will include Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and the season’s final concert, titled “Celebrating Women,” will showcase works by Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach and a new work for women’s voices by Richman.

The pops concert, set for March 4 and 5, 2017, will be “The Music of Star Wars,” conducted by Richman.

For information, visit bangorsymphony.org or call 581-1755.

 

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