BAR HARBOR — Francis Fortier, the artistic director of The Bar Harbor Music Festival, tends to talk in hyperbole.
“World class,” “back by popular demand,” “virtuoso,” “superb,” lauded,” “hailed” and “foremost in his/her field” are some of the favorite words and phrases he uses to describe the roster of diverse performers he has enticed to our Bar Harbor stages.
While it would be virtually impossible to have attended every one of these musical offerings and still have time to do anything else in the month of July, it would be a rare few, if any, of those who do manage to attend some of these lauded performances who would accuse Mr. Fortier of overselling his product.
Nowhere is this truer than when he tells us we had better catch the young singers he recruits for the festival’s annual opera performances before they are “snatched up by the Met.”
Last Friday’s performance of Puccini’s “La Boehme” at the Criterion Theatre was a case in point.
Oh my. The wonder here is that the four principals – sopranos Chloe Olivia Moore and Celine Mogielnicki, tenor Derrek Stark and baritone Isaac Bray are not already under contract to some famous opera company. Perhaps they are, and have managed to play hooky for a week on beautiful Mount Desert Island?
In any case, the 400 or so folks who filled the seats at the Criterion Friday night clearly understood what a privilege it was to hear these scintillating voices (how’s that, Francis?) filling the elegant old theater.
As the doomed Mimi, Moore is a vocal phenom who manages to project her incredible, nuanced voice to the back of the balcony and up to the painted ceiling and still make it seem as delicate and fragile as the silk flowers Mimi makes for her meagre living. Her opening aria, when she sings about her hopes for the coming spring, was just the first time she brought me to tears.
Soprano Mogielnicki has a similarly impressive projection but with a more robust quality that suits her role as the flirtatious, somewhat pugnacious, Musetta.
And speaking of robust, both Derreck Stark and Isaac Bray as the girls’ respective lovers, the writer Rudolfo and painter Marcello, are perfectly convincing when they sing of their conflicting feelings of love and jealousy. Their duet in the fourth act is simply spine-tingling, as is Stark’s first act aria, “Che Gelida Manina,” when he tells Mimi about his hopes and dreams as a poet, writer and aspiring lover.
In smaller roles – especially in this abridged version – both bass Brandon Morales as Colline and baritone John Allen Nelson as Schaunard, the other two members of this Bohemian band of brothers, are excellent. One only wishes we could have heard more from them.
As ever, pianist Clara Chowning was a wonder and, at times watching her hands gracefully dance across the keyboard, was as enthralling as the singing.
As mentioned, this was an abridged version of the opera both in the story and in the production, which was pretty darn stark. While I imagine many in the audience were pleased at the two-hour run time, it did prevent the audience from fully experiencing the illusion of a cold Parisian winter and, more crucially, the full development of the characters. I really missed the creative touch of Fenlon Lamb’s Papermoon Productions, which so beautifully set the scenes for the festival’s most recent pre-pandemic operas and hope she returns when and if the coast is truly clear of COVID.
Still, it seems they could have found a proper bed for poor Mimi to expire upon instead of a chaise covered in what appeared to be beach towels.
During intermission, Fortier enthused about a $300,000 bequest the festival received this year. Let’s hope production values for these operas will be a place it is used.
Still, one must be grateful that this iconic festival, which helped shape the future character of Bar Harbor when Fortier first brought his fiddle to town, has made it through, well, sickness and health these last 56 years, and hope it continues through whatever obstacles the universe hurls our way in the future.