Les Misérables

Marching orders: Sousa's The Glass Blowers is almost certain to follow other Glimmerglass productions to the City Opera.Photo: George Mott

Everyone who loves opera loves La Bohème, and every opera company in the world performs it. For that reason alone, Puccini’s classic weepie of doomed young love seems like an odd choice to open a major summer festival, where one expects to encounter more adventurous fare. On the other hand, Glimmerglass Opera is understandably feeling a bit nostalgic this year as the company celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. Now a preferred stop on the international summer music circuit, Glimmerglass made a humble start in 1975 with a production of La Bohème staged in the local high school at Cooperstown, New York. Since then, a handsome new opera house has risen on the banks of Lake Otsego and there has been plenty of growth, innovation – and trendsetting; virtually every production developed here now travels south to the New York City Opera. So an affectionate look back to where it all began only seems appropriate.

But what about good old La Bohème? How can this most popular of operas, performed over and over, presented in every conceivable manner, and even reworked into a hit Broadway musical, be made fresh again? Admittedly perplexed, director James Robinson cast about to find a way that might give the opera a new look and at the same time emphasize its universal theme of lost love, dreams, and innocence. His solution: Retain the Paris setting but advance the time from 1850 to a period that irrevocably smashed almost everyone’s romantic illusions – 1914, the first year of World War I.

Well, it’s a novel idea at least, one that Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer seem to trust as they fill the stage with one fanciful invention after another. To warm up the bohemians’ frigid Act One garret, Marcello has painted a truly dreadful Gauguinesque South Seas mural that fills the entire wall space. Café Momus on Christmas Eve teems with edgy activity. Colline, philosopher and antiwar activist, storms in with a placard reading socialistes pour la paix. Musetta, looking like an overdressed silent-movie vamp, drives up with her ancient admirer in a sputtering antique automobile. Newsboys hawk grim tidings from the front. The toy vendor Parpignol returns before the final curtain, a personification of death prancing at the head of a forlorn marching band on its way to nowhere. The wintry scene of Act Three is literally the end of the line: a terminus dominated by a huge iron locomotive with coffins bearing the war dead stacked nearby. Even the bohemians’ occasional horseplay fails to lift the spirits of this cheerless La Bohème.

Since Puccini hardly set out to write a comic opera, I suppose that Robinson and his team have indeed found an unusual and often effective way to remind us just how miserable these people really are. The production’s strength, though, lies in its treatment of character rather than surroundings. This opera’s pathos arises from a craftily constructed network of tiny human details, poignantly reinforced by the music, and few go unobserved here. How moving for once to see Rodolfo’s physical attraction to Mimì visibly turning into something deeper as she quietly tells him about her simple lifestyle. No sooner are they a pair than Puccini subtly plants the seeds of future lovers’ quarrels amid the holiday revelry of Act Two – lost in most productions but gently brought to our attention here. And how sadly out of place these four bedraggled young artists look when surrounded by the Café Momus’s upscale clientele. The telling details add up to a production that might even draw a tear or two from cynical souls at their hundredth La Bohème.

The Glimmerglass cast scores in terms of vocal freshness, deft acting skills, and willing spirit; those who want more – musical refinement, verbal acuity, authentic Italian brio, a sense of stylistic continuity – will have to turn to old recordings with native singers, about the only option these days. The most rounded impersonation comes from Kelley Nassief, whose richly textured soprano has real future potential – her Mimì is already an affecting creation. As Rodolfo, Raúl Hernandez rejoices in a securely produced, ringing lyric tenor, which he unfortunately uses with a minimum of expressive imagination. Frank Hernandez (Marcello) and Kara Shay Thomson (Musetta) are comfortably in the picture, while the entire lively onstage ensemble benefits from Stewart Robertson’s supportive musical direction.

For its second offering of the summer, Glimmerglass came up with a risky project that qualifies as a genuine festival event: the first performance since 1913 of John Philip Sousa’s The Glass Blowers. Few people are aware that the March King even wrote for the musical stage, but apparently his first ambition was to become America’s Sullivan, if he could only find a Gilbert. That never happened, and like the best operettas and musical comedies of its day, The Glass Blowers contains much worthwhile music wedded to an impossibly dated book and embarrassing lyrics. Broadway musicals back then seemed obsessed with class friction – poor-boy-loves-rich-girl and vice versa turns up right through Jerome Kern’s Princess Theater shows. In this improbable farrago, the love mix-ups get entangled with labor problems in a glassblowing factory until the Spanish-American War breaks out and everyone sets off for Cuba. You don’t want to know why.

As with so many revivals of textually troubled works from the early Baroque to the recent past, this production of The Glass Blowers has been scrupulously researched to arrive at the most authentic performing version possible, and then put on the stage in a way that negates whatever charm the piece might still be able to convey. One never knows what to expect from Christopher Alden. His staging of the Thomson-Stein The Mother of Us All for Glimmerglass was enchantingly warm and witty, but this rigidly mechanized show – a cross between Busby Berkeley without heart and Bertolt Brecht without brains – is positively reptilian. The large cast goes through its exercises with militaristic precision, and Sousa’s overlong score, full of tunes that never quite stick in the ear, dances pleasantly under John DeMain’s baton. I found it all mostly tedious, but the audience on opening night seemed enchanted, and a future engagement at Lincoln Center is practically guaranteed.

Les Misérables