Without fanfare, Lyric Opera has been systematically retiring elderly opera productions that have outlived their usefulness or have simply worn out with age. A prime candidate for junking was the 1972 Pier Luigi Pizzi production of Puccini's "La Boheme," a kind of corporate apartment house that has seen countless occupants, worthy and not so worthy, over the years. Recent revivals made that dingy and faded show no easier to live with.
So it came as a welcome relief at the Civic Opera House on Monday night when the curtain rose on a different, and much improved, setting for this evergreen masterpiece, which has long topped opera's popularity poll. The borrowed San Francisco Opera sets are not exactly new (they date from 1996) but they provide a suitably intimate frame for this sentimental tale of love and loss among the scruffy young inhabitants of the Latin Quarter in mid-19th century Paris.
Lyric has stocked the production with an appealing cast of bohemians that also represents a distinct improvement over some of the vocal ensembles the company has fielded over the last decade. Once again the roles of the central lovers, Mimi and Rodolfo, are double-cast, with soprano Ana Maria Martinez and tenor Dimitri Pittas singing the January-February performances, and Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja taking over for the March series. The ever-reliable conductor Emmanuel Villaume is in charge of all 11 performances.
The story of the sickly seamstress Mimi, who by chance meets and falls instantly in love with the impoverished poet Rodolfo, only to fall victim to consumption and die in his shabby garret, is no less poignant no matter how many times we've seen and heard it, given the inexorable tug of Puccini's richly tuneful score on our heartstrings.
Martinez knows a lot about how to strum those heartstrings and does so wonderfully here. The Puerto Rico-born soprano sounded fresh and radiant on Monday, her phrasing nuanced and full of alluring colorations. Her singing and acting were as one, creating a believably fragile heroine whose fate we really cared about. Her "Donde lieta usci," in which Mimi told her lover they should part without bitterness, was most affectingly sung, sealing her triumph in this, her signature role. It is not for nothing that Lyric has big plans for Martinez in future seasons. One awaits those upcoming appearances eagerly.
Pittas, the American tenor who was making his Lyric debut, left a rather more mixed impression. He began a bit stiffly, both in voice and manner, his attractive, reedy sound marred by constriction at the top of "Che gelida manina," the aria the smitten Rodolfo pours out after touching Mimi's cold little hand. Pittas cut a handsome figure and sang with plenty of ardor, so one can only hope the voice opens more easily in later performances.
Puccini artfully counterpoints the tender pathos of Mimi and Rodolfo's relationship with the tempestuousness of the on-again, off-again affair of the coquettish Musetta and the painter Marcello.
Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a delight as the former, bringing a bright, vibrant sound and vivacious calculation to her waltz, "Quando me'n vo," in the Café Momus act, a one-two punch that had Lucas Meachem's Marcello plainly unnerved. The American singer brought a warm, fine-grained lyric baritone and solid dramatic instincts to the painter's music. If Marcello ideally needs a darker, more thrusting sound, with a firmer core, than one heard on this occasion, his was an honorable performance.
The other two bohemians were taken with distinction by Ryan Opera Center baritone Joseph Lim as the musician Schaunard and Andrea Silvestrelli as the philosopher Colline, whose sepulchral bass tended to protrude in the ensembles of the first and last acts. Although the veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis was repeating his double assumption of the landlord Benoit and the sugar daddy Alcindoro for the umpteenth time at Lyric, his comic shtick still rang true.
Villaume is a stylish Puccini conductor who knows how the score should go, moving the music along urgently while giving shape and flow to those irresistible Puccini melodies. His close involvement in the music drama was matched by the shipshape playing he elicited from the orchestra. The players sounded idiomatic and tireless, despite the fact that their days have been taken up with rehearsing Wagner's formidable score to "Die Meistersinger." The chorus, prepared by guest chorus master Ian Robertson of the San Francisco Opera, gave added spark to the second act.
Luisa Muller, in her Lyric directing debut, opted for a sensible and un-gimmicky action scheme. She had all she could do not to have the bohemians knock each other over during the roughhousing of Act 1, within the believably cramped, frozen attic Michael Yeargan designed for Rodolfo and friends. The design scheme (with costumes by Walter Mahoney and lighting by Duane Schuler) at all times worked to the advantage of the opera, maintaining a tight focus on dramatic interaction that heightened the pathos of Mimi's deathbed scene in particular.
The Café Momus act, which flowed seamlessly out of Act 1 – without the disruptive intermission of Lyric's previous production – was a lively Christmas Eve panorama filled with nicely observed humanity – jostling street vendors, a marching band, adorable children (take a bow, Chicago Children's Choir), everybody waving tiny French flags. And the snowscape of the third act, set at the city gates, could hardly have been more atmospheric.
Lyric Opera has given audience members plenty of reasons to fall in love with "La Boheme" all over again.
Lyric's first run of performances of Puccini's "La Boheme" continues through Feb. 7 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. A second series of "Boheme" performances runs March 9-28; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.
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