There are certain indestructible elements to Puccini's "La Boheme" -- the deeply lyrical music, for a start, not to mention the compact, endearing plot about young love and loss -- but every production of the evergreen work requires fresh sparks. Washington National Opera's new staging produces enough expressive electricity to keep the lights of the Cafe Momus burning for a couple weeks.
Opening night on Saturday at the Kennedy Center, featuring the first of two casts the company has assembled for the run, was not the most brilliantly sung "Boheme" imaginable. Most of the voices sounded small and were often swamped by Puccini's luxuriant orchestration, hardly an uncommon experience in an opera house these days.
But young, attractive singers who can look and feel like young, attractive bohemians are especially prized now, and WNO has certainly delivered in that department. There was a good deal of nuanced, persuasive acting on Saturday, and that counted for a lot.
So did the extraordinary conducting by WNO music director Philippe Auguin, who led an exquisitely sculpted account of the score, rich in rubato and attentive to the finest details of orchestration. The musicians in the pit responded to this eloquent guidance with polished, sensitive playing.
Another plus: The stage direction by Peter Kazaras. There are lots of telling little touches in his approach, such as Rodolfo's I-blew-it gesture when Mimi starts to leave the attic after their first encounter, or the sight of people decorating a Christmas tree in a window above the Act 2 Paris street scene.
Note, too, how, at the end of Act 3, Rodolfo and Mimi do not walk off together, as they usually do. The final fate of the lovers' on-off-on relationship registers all the more effectively with the image of Mimi leaving alone, an image that has an unexpected visual underlining here -- the background of the set changes from winter to spring as Mimi departs.
That transformation, hinted at earlier during the Act 1 attic room scene, is far from subtle, but fits the poetic streak that is so much a part of the lives and yearnings in "Boheme."
Lee Savage's set design offers several other attractions, notably the supple transformation from bleak, gray attic to the colorful world of fresh possibilities in the Latin Quarter.
The production, originally devised by Jo Davies, updates the action to just after World War I, which explains the presence of Allied troops and multi-national flags for the military parade that ends Act 2.
It also puts another possible light on Mimi's fatal illness, given the flu epidemic that struck so many civilians in the wake of that war. And the sight of Colline walking with a cane suggests a war wound; when, soon after climbing up to the attic, he gets to the line in the libretto about asking for a chair, the reason takes on new meaning.
On Saturday, Corinne Winters gained in expressive force as the performance proceeded. Her phrasing and tone coloring in "D'onde lieta usci" proved quite poignant, as did her death scene. The soprano's top notes in Act 1 lacked steadiness, a condition shared by Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo. But the tenor's singing also became increasingly warm and involving, with a good deal of dynamic shading.
John Chest's Marcello was lithe, likable and long-haired; more tonal shading and heft would have complemented his impassioned delivery. A vivid Joshua Bloom (Colline) and even more colorful Steven LaBrie (Schaunard) added greatly to the performance.
Alyson Cambridge was in mostly solid voice and always in vibrant form as Musetta. Donato DiStefano handled the dual assignments of landlord and sugar daddy with delectable vocal and theatrical flair. The chorus had a strong night as well in this thoughtful new production, which, at its best, reconfirms the affecting powers of "La Boheme."