La Boheme, Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia March 2015
This AVA Philadelphia production of La boheme was notable for three reasons.
First was atypical casting. Marina Costa-Jackson has a big voice that’s darker then what we usually hear as the fragile Mimi. She was superb last season as Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, which requires large-scaled singing, and rarely does one soprano have Amelia and Mimi concurrent in her repertoire. This Mimi had a larger, richer sound than the norm.
Academy of Vocal Arts productions have given us unusual casting in the past. AVA music director Christofer Macatsoris believes in teaching students repertoire for which they can be hired after graduation yet also, on occasion, asking them to stretch and take on surprising roles. For example, Angela Meade co-starred as Lucia di Lammermoor in 2009 and it’s not likely that she would sing this role again.
In this production, Jared Bybee sang Marcello the painter and Michael Adams sang Schaunard the musician, each displaying good acting and ringing baritone voices while tenor Dominick Chenes was an ardent Rodolfo. Mackenzie Whitney sang that role in a separate performance.
The production was noteworthy also for the sounds from the pit. The opera concerns young love and premature death, and in a larger sense is about unfulfilled hope. The orchestra functions as an additional character and makes these topics clear. During the Act I love-duet, for example, violins and cello accompany Rodolfo while a solo flute, English horn, clarinet, and bassoon play in unison with Mimi. A series of slow unresolved chords heighten the feeling of unattainable yearning. You’ll rarely hear comparisons of Puccini to Wagner, but this scene has definite similarities to what Wagner did in Tristan und Isolde.
An additional distinction is the fact that three of the principals in this Boheme were selected as semi-finalists in the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, as announced one week later. Costa-Jackson, Bybee and Adams, plus the AVA tenor William Davenport (who was not in this production) were among the 17 semi-finalists selected from 1800 singers who competed.
We’ve become happily accustomed to singers trained at AVA winning the auditions and going on to star at the Met. Ten are currently on the Met roster. But it’s unprecedented that three of the leads in one AVA production were chosen.
On Sunday, March 22, Marina Costa-Jackson was declared as one of six winners who will each receive a $15,000 prize. While the judges deliberated, Angela Meade (a winner of the 2007 competition) sang arias from La Wally and Norma. Meade graduated from the Academy of Vocal Arts in 2009, is now a major Met artist and served as host of the event, which was videotaped for television broadcast. Costa-Jackson is in her junior year as a resident artist at AVA.
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