By Cornelia Iredell, Opera News, July 24, 2013
For its nineteenth summer season, Maine's PORTopera presented La Bohème and proved that the familiar can be both fresh and remarkably moving in the right hands. Those hands belong to PORT's artistic director, Dona D. Vaughn, whose stylish, sensitive staging created an intimate world for this perennial favorite by emphasizing the characters' relationships and interactions.
Moving the production to take place in the early twentieth century allowed for a new visual perspective. Judy Gailen's flexible set design of Cubist-inspired panels and window panes, along with the imaginative lighting of Christopher Akerlind, allowed for varied stage pictures and fluid set changes. Acts I and II were performed without intermission, as the artists' garret was transformed into the Café Momus with a swift shifting of panels and lowering of strings of lanterns, all cleverly managed as waiters, patrons and assorted revelers assembled onstage.
The strong cast was impressive throughout. The most compelling performance of the night was the Marcello of Edward Parks, whose warm, velvety baritone filled the house as he portrayed the frustrations of a passionate man, reeling from his tempestuous relationship with the frequently fickle Musetta. In that role, Alyson Cambridge's sparkling soprano was matched by her confident, thoroughly believable characterization. Soprano Michelle Johnson sang with a rich, full tone and created a Mimì of dignity as well as pathos. The Rodolfo of Jeff Gwaltney, despite some moments of vocal insecurity, grew in stature as the opera unfolded and was fully realized in the final act, when his emotional commitment was matched by strong singing. Vaughn's staging in Act III nicely contrasted the two couples, showing the conflicting emotions of Rodolfo and Mimì as they separate and reunite, echoed with much less restraint by the battling Marcello and Musetta. The reality of the character portrayals was strikingly emphasized in Act IV, as they were affected in different ways by Mimì's final illness and death.
Other strong performances included José Adán Pérez, as an unusually intense Schaunard, and Ben Wager, as a sympathetic Colline. Jan Opalach was amusing as both Benoit and Alcindoro. Conductor Israel Gursky provided stellar support as he led the orchestra in an expressive performance of Puccini's lush score.