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  1. #1
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    La Bohème at Washington National Opera

    La Bohème, dramma lirico in quattro quadri, sung in Italian (premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, February 1st, 1896)

    Music by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
    Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Henry Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohème.

    New production, Washington National Opera - this review is of the matinee on Saturday November 15, 2014

    Washington National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Phillippe Auguin
    Washington National Opera Chorus, Children's Chorus, and Dancers
    Chorus Master Steven Gathman; Children's Chorus Master Will Breytspraak

    A production by Jo Davies, with original stage direction by Peter Kazaras
    Set Designer Lee Savage
    Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller
    Lighting Designer Bruno Poet
    Choreographer Ben Wright


    Rodolfo - Saimir Pirgu
    Mimì - Corinne Winters
    Musetta - Alyson Cambridge
    Marcello - John Chest
    Colline - Joshua Bloom
    Schaunard - Steven LaBrie
    Benoit & Alcindoro - Donato DiStefano
    Other comprimarios - Adam Caughey, James Shaffran, Andrew McLaughlin


    I think I'm in love with Washington National Opera. I just had the most perfect opera trip, and I'm really impressed with the company, the hospitality, the staff, the production, and the cast.

    One year ago I interviewed Francesca Zambello at Glimmerglass, and since she directs that company but has also accepted relatively recently the position of Artistic Director at Washington National Opera, I asked her about this company that for the last several years, shall we say, has struggled to present high quality opera.

    Well, not anymore. When I asked her about it, she said "just you wait and see; I'll be fixing the company; there will be good shows at WNO." Indeed, Francesca has fulfilled her promise. This was an astonishing Bohème, and if the sample is indicative of things to come, WNO will rightfully take its seat as a prominent national company that will contribute very meaningfully to the operatic environment in the United States. It was about time. After all, it is located in our nation's capital, and it proudly displays the word 'National' in its name.

    I left the headquarters at 2:45 AM and drove to Washington DC, hoping to beat the traffic on a Friday (I had some business to conduct there in the morning). The expected driving time of 4 hours 15' got an extra 30' of traffic jam - getting there at 7 AM still didn't save me from some congestion, but by 7:30 I got to the Capital Hilton, two blocks from the White House. I highly recommend it: very attentive and kind staff; they go out of their way to please the guests, and the rooms and lounges are very comfortable.

    With the business part efficiently out of the way, Countess and I headed to the Kennedy Center - by such a beautiful day although bitterly cold, we walked 1.3 miles from the hotel in 30 minutes. Right next door to the Center in the Watergate complex, we stopped at Campono for an Italian lunch. This Bob Kinkead restaurant is soldiering on while Ancora next door, owned by the same chef and more upscale, is closed for renovations. No worries, since rustic food at Campono was simply delicious - very gourmet pizza, as good as the ones we had in Naples and Capri with a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and phenomenal gelato.

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    The restaurant played opera tracks on their sound system. From there, we headed to the Kennedy Center to meet the very helpful and friendly Michael Solomon, Senior Press Representative, whom I knew from Glimmerglass and Santa Fe.

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    Michael took us to the newly renovated Russian Lounge, where I was scheduled to interview soprano Alyson Cambridge and to meet Francesca Zambello again.

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 23rd, 2014 at 05:31 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    OK, so, we interviewed the lovely, pretty, friendly, articulate, and intelligent Alyson Cambridge who is singing Musetta, and oh boy, she can sing! Here is a teaser - the parts she talks about La Bohème, in about 18 minutes. Another hour of questions and answers will complete this interview - stay tuned for the full interview with artistic biography, schedule, clips, etc.

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    Alyson Cambridge during her exclusive Opera Lively interview, photo by Luiz Gazzola/Opera Lively

    This fragment of an exclusive interview with Alyson Cambridge is copyrighted to Opera Lively and can only be reproduced with authorization (use the Contact Us form).

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - First of all, let’s talk about the current production of La Bohème at WNO. The sets are traditional and realistic. I recently saw one from Salzburg where the sets were updated to contemporary times and full of trash. What is your opinion of traditional/realistic versus updated/abstract sets for a piece like La Bohème that seems to address a very specific time period and environment?

    Alyson Cambridge – I’ve been part of both traditional and contemporary versions of La Bohème. Actually the last time I was at WNO it was a very contemporary, updated production and it received very mixed reviews. It was sort of controversial. I will say, however, that it brought a new audience. There were a lot of people who were curious to see what the production was all about. I thought that aspect of it was quite good. I’ve done many traditional Mimìs and Musettas. At the end of the day if you maintain and highlight the truth in the story you really can set it at any time, because it’s a timeless story. It depends on the director. If in their contemporary vision they stray from the libretto, people can take some issue with it, but I can see nothing wrong with updating it. This is what holds true for many operas. If you maintain the truth in the characters and the libretto, time is not such a big factor.

    LG - Saimir Pirgu is a great tenor (and one of the former Opera Lively interviewees). How has your experiencing of performing with him and with your other colleagues been?

    AC – I absolutely adore Saimir. This is the first time that we’ve worked together. He has this boyish charm and energy which is perfect for Rodolfo. I’ve gotten to know him off stage as well, and he is just lovely. He has a beautiful timbre to his sound and just sings with great heart, passion, and enthusiasm. He is one of these people who has done many Bohèmes as I have; he came to rehearsals totally open to whichever way the production would go, but he maintained his sense of Rodolfo and what Saimir could bring to that role, and I appreciated that. It was great that he brought his own experience as an artist to the table, as someone who has dealt with love, loss, and death.

    Corinne is lovely. I’ve also never worked with her before but we have many friends and colleagues in common because we both went to school in Philadelphia. She was at AVA [Academy of Vocal Arts] and I was at Curtis [Curtis Institute of Music], so I heard lots of great things about her. It’s been great to get to know her and work with her. She is a beautiful singer.

    OL - What makes of this production something special?

    AC – The slight updating into 1919 is really interesting. It’s just after World War I. We see Colline in his crutches presumably from a war injury, and there is an overcast dark gray cloud I would say that hovers over the production. There is a sense of the time, of heaviness. People have lost lives and friends and family, so you get that overall sense. When you come into Act II and the Café Momus, after you’ve been to this gray act I, now there is life. You have to imagine that even post World War I there was still a vibrancy in Paris and the city was very much alive. Great characters such as Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin, and these various artists who were alive and thriving during this period are sprinkled out throughout act II.

    OL – They make an appearance, right?

    AC – Yes, they do!

    OL – And people were rebounding from the war, then there was an atmosphere of getting things back in order and living again.

    AC – Right, people were yearning for that. You really see that in Act II, especially.

    OL - What can you say about the psychology of your character Musetta?

    AC – Musetta is a very interesting character. Having played both Mimì and Musetta and having read the novel, I realized that Mimì and Musetta were more similar in the novel, whereas in the opera they are more dissimilar. They are both women who have experienced love and loss, and Musetta is elevated to this extreme degree of knowing how to play with men and manipulate them. She knows how to get what she wants, but her heart is good. At the end of the day, she loves Marcello. She may throw a fit, she may have her scene with Alcindoro and flirt with men, but she is aware that this is just a power that she has, and really just a tool to get at the core for Marcello. That’s really what it comes down to. I feel like there is almost a missing scene that could show all of the bohemians together after the café, just really enjoying one another, because Musetta is part of this group. She is not one of the boys but she knows them really well. And then when Mimì comes into the circle, she and Mimì develop a friendship. That’s sort of the missing scene, so when you get to act IV, she says “I’ll give my earrings, let’s get some medicine, let’s get a doctor, get her a muff” – she wants do to everything she can to help her girlfriend. [Editor’s note – curiously, it is known that the librettists did write an additional act right at this point in the opera, centered on Musetta – an open-air party in her courtyard after she fails to pay rent and her furniture is thrown out – but Puccini decided not to set it to music.]

    When I’m playing this character, for me act II is about Musetta and Marcello. I’m not really thinking about the other guys. I’m a little annoyed with them and just think of them as the dressing around Marcello. I’m focused on the main course, Marcello. When we get into act III you see the ongoing banter – it’s just the nature of their relationship. They are hot, they are cold, but it’s always passionate. Then you get to act IV, and it’s “oh my gosh, here is the heart.” That’s why Marcello continues to come back to her. She may be a handful, but she offers something. More than just spice and zest, she offers heart.

    OL – They both seem to have a yearning for freedom. They want to be in a relationship, but be free at the same time.

    AC – Yes, absolutely.

    OL – So, you mentioned the novel, is the something you always do, going back to the sources to study your characters?

    AC – I do, especially for this piece, because La Bohème has been such a big part of my career. I learned that early on. When I started to study opera in college, my professor came from a theater background. He had a set way to go about researching a role for the first time and it involved a lot of reading and studying about the time period; if the story originated from a novel, I had to go back and read the novel, the play or whatnot. That’s something I’ve always done. I first did Musetta and shortly thereafter I did my first Mimì, and it kept going back and forth. It’s been nine years I’ve been singing both of these roles.

    You have to know where the story is coming from, but then you have to go into each production with a rather clean slate and be open to whatever the production asks of you. Mimì, for example: does she see Rodolfo blow out his candle? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Does she know that he has actually found the key? It depends. I come in with my own feelings about things and you have to see where the production takes you, but it is important to go back to the source and have something to hold on to, otherwise the characters are surface.

    OL – That’s a role you know very well. But when you get a new role, do you typically look at what your predecessors have done before? Do you go first to the libretto, or to the vocal score with a pianist? What’s your preparation process?

    AC – When I’m learning something completely from scratch that I’ve never heard before, then I’ll go and listen, and I think “let me hear what this thing sounds like.” But if it’s a piece that I’m relatively familiar with as a listener, I actually don’t want to go and listen, because my ear is very sharp and if I hear something one time it sort of gets in me. I don’t ever want to become a mimic. I don’t want to try to sound or sing or stylize a role like somebody else did it. I want to feel like I’m creating it for the first time. I’ll read the novel or play if there is one, then I’ll read the libretto, and I’ll go to my pianist, and coach, and teacher and sink my teeth into the vocalisms, and create what I can for myself. After I’ve done all that, then I can go back and listen. Leontyne [Price] was a great creator of this role, and Tebaldi or Freni. Then you can pick up little things and say “Oh, I like that choice” but I want to make the choices for myself, first.

    This is a trap that many singers from our generation can fall into because we do have access to all these recordings on YouTube. Many young singers when they are given an aria, google these clips and want to sing like that. You have to make it your own. It’s really important. We are artists. We are creators. We are not here just to imitate. What is tough about opera is that we are singing music that has been around for hundreds of years. Many people have sung it, and we’ll always be compared to people of the past. This is all the more reason for us to do what we can to stand out as individual artists. I’d love for someone who comes and sees my Musetta to not compare me with my predecessors, although I know it’s going to happen anyway. I’d like people to say “oh, that’s interesting; I never thought of that choice and I like how she did that.”

    OL – In our recent interview with Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti he said that great singers are unique in a sense because of some traits that might be called shortcomings or idiosyncrasies that would actually be a defect in someone else’s voice. When you listen to them, it’s the weird characteristics that stand out – otherwise they’d be just bland and generic instead of being famous as great singers. These unique traits fit *their* voices but would be mistakes for someone else, so if you listen to them too much and pick up those choices that are not a good fit for your voice, you may stray into the wrong path. When you try to sing like them you sound forced and fake.

    AC – This is so true! There are so many great singers that I go back and listen to and think “OK, that works for them, but I know my voice, it wouldn’t work for me.” It’s how you take a breath or phrase something. There’s an aria that has been part of my repertory for about one year, and a coach might say “one should not take a breath at this point” but if I go to another coach who knows *my* voice he’ll say “I know that this breath here works for you.” When you sing with conviction and do what is right for you, that’s what is convincing for the listener. You can’t just do what everybody else did.

    OL – On the other hand, I think that if there is a point that is a particular difficulty that needs to be solved, it might be helpful to look at how others did it, as long as you look at several singers and compare how they went around it in order to find your own way to pass that speed bump, instead of trying to just do it like one single famous singer did it.

    AC – Right, exactly, I agree with you there.

    OL - What is your recipe for portraying and singing a good Musetta?

    AC - We kind of talked about it a little bit, but I can add a little more. I go into Musetta first and foremost with the attitude of fun, because she is fun. Act II centers around Musetta. It is about life and good spirits. It is an overall jovial feeling. Musetta is at the core of that, for that scene. I come in with the intention to sparkle and shine, and to have fun with it. I want to sing it beautifully and lusciously and always with a lot of personality.

    OL - Tell us about the gorgeous Muzetta’s Waltz “Quando me’n vo” – is it difficult?

    AC – I suppose it can be, because it’s one of the most famous pieces in the operatic repertoire. I debuted my first Musetta in 2005 when I was still considered to be a light lyric coloratura. Now I’m a full lyric, or lyric-spinto, even. My voice has changed a lot. How I sing it is really different, and how I pace it has changed over the years, but I do still come and think “she is fire, she is fun.” Like any singer, as you develop, you are always tweaking your technique, especially for pieces that have been in your repertoire for a long time.

    OL – When there is a really signature aria like that in your role, is it frightening for the performer, to think “these 3,000 people are sitting there looking at me and they are all waiting for this moment, so I need to do well on this one”?

    AC – Hm hm, there is part of that, I will say. As I’ve gone throughout my career, I think about it less and less. I know I’m not going to sing it like Freni did or Gheorghiu did. I’m going to sing it like I sing it. In the early part of my career when I was in general more self-conscious, I felt like I was trying to please teachers, coaches, critics, and that actually got me tight and constricted. For example, I recently did a Bohème as Mimì, and the maestro had conducted it many, many times; I came in and I had some different choices on how I was going to pace the first aria. First day, we talked about it, and by the end he was a believer. He said “aha” because I sang what works for my voice. I really believed in the character, and that translated well. Maybe five years ago I wouldn’t have done that. I’d have thought “he thinks I should do it that way, so I’ll do as he wants.” I stay within the respectful parameters of the music and the libretto that are given to me but I do also now listen a lot to my gut and to my voice, and my instincts as an actress, as well.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 18th, 2014 at 04:41 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  3. #3
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Next we sat with Francesca Zambello and had a nice chat. I gave her a copy of our book "Opera Lively The Interviews Volume 2" which contains our interview with her, as well as those of several Glimmerglass artists. I updated her on operatic events in North Carolina and heard from her about the upcoming Glimmerglass season. She invited me to come more often to both WNO and Glimmerglass, which I promised to do.

    Back to the hotel, we had some finger food and wine at the lounge and retired early, tired from that trip that started at 2:45 AM.

    The next day, Saturday the 15th, after breakfast I stayed in the room transcribing Alyson's interview, while Countess went for a walk around the White House.

    At 12 noon we checked out from the hotel and drove to Kennedy Center. Oh well, we went for more pizza (different flavor) and more gelato. I mean, the health-conscious Countess ordered salad. Not me! She did help me with eating the gelato, though.

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    Then, we attended the Bohème matinee with excellent seats provided by Michael Solomon, left right after the show, and drove another 4h 40' back to North Carolina. We left the Capital happy, thankful for the hospitality, and rather impressed with the improved company. OK, folks, time for the real review!
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  4. #4
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Act I opens indeed very gray, like Alyson said. Set design is not attractive at all, for this act. Here is a maquette:

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    La Bohème, Washington National Opera, set design for act I by Lee Savage, fair promotional use

    See, the concept of bleak post-war Paris with people still healing from the losses of the war would have worked, except that La Bohème's first act is very comedic.

    As for the singing, while Saimir is one of the best tenors in activity and did his usual superb and flawless job, Corinne started very tentative, seemingly not warmed up yet, and her "Me chiamano Mimì" only drew tepid applause.

    While the conductor and the orchestra where correct with good tempi, good support for the singers with the right dynamics, and no mistakes whatsoever that we could spot, they weren't particularly thrilling either.

    At the end of Act I we were a bit disappointed.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 23rd, 2014 at 05:14 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  5. #5
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Saimir by the way drew Bravo shouts from the sold out crowd and overpowered Corinne in the duet "Oh soave fanciulla," with his booming voice that filled all nooks in the house. John Chest's Marcello was delivered with excellent acting but also a rather small voice, while Steven LaBrie as Schaunard was pretty good, and Joshua Bloom as Colline was truly excellent and the second best singer in first act after Saimir. Donato DiStefano was a good Benoit.

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    Act 1, John Chest and Saimir Pirgu, photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

    OK, so I was saying, we were a bit disappointed with act I, but then act II rolled in. Oh my God! What a thing of beauty!

    The production suddenly took a turn for the better. Act II was simply stunning, and by far, very far, the very best I've ever seen in La Bohème, all productions considered (in person and video).

    The transformation from the bleak gray apartment into Cafe Momus was theatrically thrilling. The apartment opens up and its parts slide to the sides of the stage, while the Cafe parts slide in from all directions (left, right, back, top), snow falls, a colorful crowd pours in from three directions, and we are in the most realistic Parisian street scene possible, complete with acrobats, Charles Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, a period car, the works. Alyson makes her entrance in style and completely dominates the act, with a fabulous outfit and phenomenal singing, not to forget hilarious acting, which is matched with gusto by all involved (comedic timing was perfect and very funny). Blocking is simply incredibly well done - this must be the best on-stage movement and choreography I remember since the Châtelet Les Troyens.

    Alyson's "Quando m'en vo" was spectacular, delivered with the singer on top of the cafe counter for the first half, then back on the floor interacting with the colorful crowd for the rest of the waltz. The updating to post-WWI Paris worked and made sense. This was a perfect act, exploring all the possibilities of the operatic art form and putting them to the best possible use. What a winner!

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    Act II, Cafe Momus, photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

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    This production picture has the alternative cast with Trevor Slcheunemann, Alexey Dolgov, Musa Ngqungwana, Christian Bowers, Tatiana Monogarova, and Leah Partridge (Donato DiStefano was in both casts), photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

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    Act II, photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

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    The Children's Chorus, photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

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    Alyson Cambridge as Musetta, photo by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 23rd, 2014 at 05:19 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  6. #6
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Intermission, some images of the house:

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    Now, Act III could be called "the great Corinne Winters come-back." The singer seemed to warm-up and she delivered much more than in her tepid act I and unremarkable act II. First of all, Corinne has the most appropriate physique du rôle one can image. She really does look a lot like I imagine Mimì, beautiful, tragic, petite, and fragile in the snowy Act III set.

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    Paradoxically as Mimì falters and is sick and despondent, the singer soars and and produces purity of tone, good projection (unlike in act I) and compelling acting. In the duets with Saimir, Corinne is now his equal. By the way, she did have charming acting in the first half of the opera, as did all members of this young cast.

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    Saimir and Corinne in Act I, photo Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

    The act ends with great lighting tricks, when the naked trees in the background blossom into pink flowers, an effect of great beauty.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  7. #7
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Act IV has set designs with the apartment open to the air, in a solution that could have been used as well in act I.

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    Set design for act IV by Lee Savage, fair promotional use

    The pink flowery background is still in use as we can see in this picture:

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    John Chest in act IV, picture by Scott Suchman, fair promotional use

    The entire cast does well in singing and acting, with a very convincingly sick Mimì (great make-up), the two lead singers being rather vocally perfect again, as well as a spectacular Joshua Bloom. The grief-stricken Saimir added to my admiration for his vocal gift, proving that he is also an accomplished actor. Everything in act IV works, with a touching and musically beautiful ending to this most compelling afternoon of great opera.

    Time for the verdict.

    Sets: A+ with stunning act II, very compelling acts III and IV, bleak and gray act I which gets one + sign down from the maximum given that in my opinion it didn't work so well, since the text and music are rather comedic at this point and the somber environment wasn't the best of matches (We understand from Alyson's interview what the purpose was, but it didn't deliver - the bleakness was much more appropriate in act III)

    Props, costumes, lighting, and make-up - couldn't be any better in this update that definitely worked very well, bringing to life the post-war Paris (including lively street scene, soldiers, military victory parade) with great beauty and character: A++

    Blocking: one of the most advanced I've ever seen. A++

    Stage Direction: very accomplished in all scenes (including acting I), interesting concept with the Parisian artists making cameos and a slight time update that worked, and certainly coaching for the acting was great. A++

    Orchestra and conductor: Correct but not thrilling. A-

    Acting: Definitely of very superior quality by virtually everybody: A++

    Principal singers:
    Saimir Pirgu: perfect all around in voice and acting. Such a pleasure! A++
    Corinne Winters: recovered quite nicely in the second half of the opera and was great once she warmed up, but definitely didn't have a good first act. Looks perfect for the role. B+
    Alyson Cambridge: like Saimir, flawless with hilarious acting and fabulous voice. A++
    John Chest: good acting but problems with projection. B
    Joshua Bloom: very beautiful voice. A+
    Schaunard: very good job, less shiny than Bloom: A

    Comprimarios: homogeneous good quality. A
    Choruses: rather compelling. A+

    Overall, a great show, proving that Washington National Opera is back and ready to compete with our best companies. Very recommended, A+ (could have been a bit lower given some singing issues in two very important roles and the striking contrast between acts I versus II, III, and IV, but also doesn't get to be any lower given three other singing roles being phenomenal, act II being highly successful, advanced blocking and overall theatricality of the last three acts).

    I will definitely need to be back to WNO more often, if they continue to put together shows of this level of quality. Francesca was right about good things to come to Washington, DC.

    Stay tuned for the full interview with Alyson Cambridge - the additional 60 minutes of chat do not address this show any longer but are rather interesting.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 16th, 2014 at 03:37 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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