Lyric Opera audiences have long taken it as an article of faith that second casts are by no means inferior to first casts, and, indeed, often prove their superior. The return of Lyric's engaging production of Puccini's "La Boheme," Saturday night at the Civic Opera House, nicely illustrated the point. The celebrated Russian soprano Anna Netrebko was making her much-anticipated Lyric debut as the consumptive heroine, Mimi, singing opposite the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as her lover, the poet Rodolfo.
Why Netrebko had to make her name in every other major international opera house before Lyric added her to its roster is one of the great imponderables. Still, her lustrously sung portrayal made up for lost time. And in Calleja, a major singer who had previously graced the Lyric stage in only one other role — Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata," in 2007 — this alluring singer had the perfect romantic partner.
Netrebko's voice has lost a bit of the bloom I recall from the "Boheme" I heard her sing at the Metropolitan Opera three years ago, and not all of her singing is squarely on pitch. Yet the velvety richness and beauty of her sound, the sensitivity of her phrasing and the earthy sensuality she radiates on stage make her impressive in this touchstone soprano part. Netrebko has beauty, voice and charisma to burn. No wonder the audience applauded her before she had sung a note.
And she used her striking physical charms to advantage in making the ailing seamstress a wholly credible figure, save perhaps for an out-of-the-blue burst of histrionics in the third act when Rodolfo's revelation of Mimi's incurable illness to his buddy, the painter Marcello, forced Mimi from her hiding place, where she had been eavesdropping on their conversation.
Netrebko played each of her scenes for maximum expressive impact. She took her entrance aria, "Mi chiamano Mimi," very slowly, with the indulgence of conductor Emmanuel Villaume. In it, Mimi introduced herself to Rodolfo as a poor girl whose humble life is warmed by gazing at the stars from her secluded attic. Netrebko played the familiar aria as a sincere personal narrative rather than as a showpiece. The audience hung on every phrase before erupting in applause.
If her Lyric predecessor in the role, Ana Maria Martinez, gave us a more poignantly vulnerable Mimi, this was perhaps because Netrebko looked a bit too healthy and vivacious for a young woman who's supposed to be wasting away from tuberculosis. But never mind. Both singers are wonderful in this role. Netrebko scored a triumphant house debut, and one hopes it will be the first of many such assignments Lyric gives her.
It was wonderful, too, to have Calleja back, especially in a part that's so congenial for him vocally and that he inhabits with such winning energy. The tenoral sound he poured out on Saturday was gleaming, even and powerful, its quick vibrato apt for conveying Rodolfo's passionate and volatile nature. He made the most of his big aria, drawing us immediately to the side of a penniless poet who's rich in dreams of a better life and castles in the sky. The first-cast Rodolfo, Dimitri Pittas, had been a disappointment vocally. No let-down whatsoever this time around: Calleja earned the torrent of applause he received on Saturday.
His Rodolfo and Netrebko's Mimi made a smooth fit with the rest of the bohemians, all of whom were returning from the January-February performances of "Boheme." They were baritone Lucas Meachem's hot-headed Marcello, soprano Elizabeth Futral's seductive spitfire of a Musetta, bass Andrea Silvestrelli's rather rusty Colline and baritone Joseph Lim's lively and firmly sung Schaunard. Dale Travis brought his seasoned comic timing to the landlord Benoit and the sugar-daddy Alcindoro.
Villaume paced the music with a veteran opera maestro's feel for the ebb and flow of elan, animation and sentiment that make Puccini Puccini. The orchestra played very well indeed.
Lyric Opera's "La Boheme" runs for five more performances, through March 28, at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $34-$239 at 312-332-2244, ext. 5600 or lyricopera.org.