ORONO — There are good reasons that Puccini’s “La Bohème” is one of the most often performed operas worldwide. It’s a love story that features an attractive, young Parisian couple, along with their friends, all destitute artists and romantics. The music is gorgeous and memorable, with strong themes, showpiece arias and ensembles, and a lively chorus. The opera’s four acts last less than two hours. The tragedy of the heroine, Mimi, tugs at the heartstrings.
The Bangor Symphony Orchestra closed its 120th season on Sunday afternoon with a semi-staged performance of “La Bohème,” with the University of Maine’s University Singers and Oratorio Chorale and members of the Bangor Children’s Chorus sharing the stage with the orchestra and soloists.
All in all, it was a winning strategy, with Collins Center for the Arts sold out and audience expectations high.
Maestro Lucas Richman assembled a strong cast for the performance, as well as a supporting team of directors and designers. With the entire orchestra upstage of the playing area (and in Act II, the combined choruses behind the orchestra), the stage was full. The cast, under the direction of Loren Lester, moved about the minimally furnished set in a production that came off as more than semi-staged.
The acting was very good, but all that movement made the presence of the orchestra both visually and aurally confusing. While the orchestra played well and with sensitivity, it simply overpowered the singers much of the time. (There’s a reason the orchestra is in the pit in opera houses.)
In her first appearance as Mimi, Emily Birsan gave a sympathetic portrayal of the dying seamstress, singing with confidence and beautiful style. John Bellemer as Rodolfo had a commanding stage presence, once he warmed to the role. Perhaps because he was pushing to prevail over the orchestra, his high notes in “Che gelida manina” were strained. The baritone Dan Kempson was consistently strong as Marcello, with a powerful, burnished tone and charming persona. Jamilyn Manning-White pulled out all the stops as Musetta, showing dramatic flair and fine vocal control — her diminuendo on the high B in “Quando me’n vo’” would be the envy of many a soprano.
Rounding out the cast were local bass-baritone Eric Mihan as Colline, who did a nice turn with the “Coat Aria,” veteran baritone Ralph Cato as Alcindoro, baritone Aaron Engebreth as Schaunard, and UMaine’s own Ira Kramer as Parpignol and Justin Zang doubling as Benoit and the Customs Sergeant. The soloists and a small group of choristers appeared in costumes beautifully designed by Patricia Hibbert. Eleanor Kipping created a handsome series of scene depictions that were projected above the stage, and supertitles were provided to help the audience keep up with the story.
Kudos all ’round, with special mention to Francis John Vogt and Robert Ludwig, for their excellent preparation of the choruses.
It was a brave experiment for the BSO that left the audience looking forward to next season.