Lyric Opera (La Boheme)
At the Lyric Opera by Dan Zeff
Chicago –“La boheme” is the ideal introduction to opera for people who are suspicious or intimidated by opera. The work is an accessible romance about two appealing young lovers. The music is lush and emotional, the final tragedy is leavened by comedy, and the production comes in at a concise two hours plus a single intermission. And in its current run at the Lyric Opera, neophyte attendees can follow the Italian lyrics and dialogue in crisp English translations on a screen above the stage.
“La boheme” is possibly better known to young theatergoers as the inspiration for the modern rock musical “Rent.” Both works focus on the raffish society of young people trying to survive in the big city, Paris in the 1830’sin “La boheme” and New York City in the 1960’s in “Rent.” But comparisons pretty much stop after that. The Puccini work deals affectionately with its sympathetic characters. “Rent” is a raunchier affair, deserving an R rating next to a PG-13 for “La boheme.”
The bohemians of “La boheme” are four carefree young men trying to make their mark in the artsy intellectual world of early 19th century Paris. They are Rodolpho, a writer, Marcello, a painter, Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher. They all talk a good artistic game but none of them knows where their next meal will come from as they try to stay warm in a grubby garret.
The leading character among the bohemians is Rodolpho. He meets a frail seamstress named Mimi living a lonely hand-to-mouth existence in a neighboring apartment. Before you can say “love at first sight” the two fall into each other’s arms. That leads to the stirring love duet “O soave fanciulla” that closes out the first of the four acts on a vibrant note.
Rodolfo and Mimi live on love for a while and then Rodolfo casts her away because, he complains, she is flirting with other men. But he really believes he is doing Mimi a favor because he is so impoverished he is a drag on her deteriorating health. That leads to her fourth act death scene, surely one of the longest in opera and definitely one of the most poignant.
There is a subsidiary plot, the stormy love affair between Marcello and a free spirit named Musetta. The young woman is famous as the purveyor of one of opera’s greatest hits, “Musetta’s Waltz,” in the second act.
The narrative cannot be accused of over excessive complexity. What carries the evening at the Lyric Opera is the singing. The company has cast American tenor Michael Fabiano as Rodolpho and Italian soprano Maria Agresta as Mimi and they are both radiant. each has a soaring, expressive voice that thrilled the opening night audience.
Providing superior complementary support for Fabiano and Agresta are American tenor Zachary Nelson as the blustery Marcello and Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese stealing scenes as Musetta. Jake Gardner has a funny cameo as Benoit, a wealthy senior citizen in way over his head trying to score with the manipulative Musetta. Good work is also supplied by Adrian Sampetrean as Colline and Ricardo Jose Rivera as Schaunard.
Stewart Laing’s sets place the story in the garret in the first and fourth acts to the streets of Montmartre during the festive Christmas season and finally into the Café Momus. There are bustling crowds of children and adults moving between the streets and the shops and even a full-dressed marching band playing down a street. The third act, by contrast, is grimly set in a desolate wintry area just outside Paris that looks more like Siberia. It may be nitpicking, but the sight of Lyric stagehands moving sets between acts in full view of the audience is an illusion breaker
The Lyric Opera orchestra serves Puccini’s music handsomely, Venezuelan conductor Domingo Hindoyan beautifully drawing out all the score’s romantic sonorities. The storyline may meander but the glories of the music and the singing never stop. As I was waiting in line to enter the theater a man asked a little girl standing in front of me if this was her first opera. She nodded shyly and the man assured her that “La boheme” was a wonderful romantic story and she would love it And so she should. The girl is starting on the audience fast track, watching performers like Fabiano and Agresta as they ravish the ear and the tear duct telling one of the great love stories in opera.
The show gets a rating of.