Delightful ‘La boheme’ revisited

Parisian street scene in "La boheme at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Parisian street scene in “La boheme at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

3 stars

Opera lovers who hoped to see “La boheme,” Lyric’s attractively updated version  directed by Richard Jones when the 2018-19 season opened in the fall, still have a few opportunities.

After the musician’s strike cancelled one performance, this fresh version of Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera is back with more January dates added to the schedule.

The new production is beautifully sung, featuring Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Maria Agresta (Mimi). In the performance I saw, Ann Toomey (Musetta) stood in for Danielle De Niese who had a cold.

As a side note, it was announced that Michael Fabiano was also “under the weather” but I did not notice any ill effects. He certainly rose to the occasion.

The cast was accompanied by the very capable Lyric Orchestra under the direction of Domingo Hindoyan.

Though the story itself is timeless (think “Rent”), simply stated the plot involves four young gentlemen suffering in pursuit of their art as underemployed roommates in a cold and obviously inexpensive attic room in the Latin Quarter of Paris circa late 1800’s.

Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Maria Agresta (Mimi) meet when she comes to his garret in La boheme. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Maria Agresta (Mimi) meet when she comes to his garret in La boheme. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

The Latin Quarter is the home of the Sorbonne University on the “Left-Bank” of Paris famed for its artistic atmosphere and bohemian (read beat-nick, hippie, or hipster) lifestyle that brings together deep-thinkers and thrill seeking “dandies” in its stylish cafes, hence the title “La Boheme” or “The Bohemians.”

This is a story of heartache, passion and true love focused on the lead quartet with Mimi herself at the center.

Very early on, Rodolfo strikes up a love affair with Mimi after she stumbles into his room looking to light a candle. Mimi is already suffering from some undisclosed illness or affliction characterized by a persistent cough.

Meanwhile Marcello has an affliction of his own characterized by his obsession with local party girl Musetta.

The updated scenic and costume design by Stewart Laing is much more light, airy and less oppressive than more traditional versions of this opera. I might go so far as to say that the gentleman’s garret was even a bit too sparse and could have included at least one small bed or couch to make the final scene a bit less awkward.

Danielle De Niese (Musetta) waves her panties in the face of Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Ricardo José Rivera (Schaunard), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Maria Agresta (Mimi) and company. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Danielle De Niese (Musetta) waves her panties in the face of Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Ricardo José Rivera (Schaunard), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Maria Agresta (Mimi) and company. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

By contrast the café scene and the Parisian street scene were opulent and effective.

Though the latter had an exceptionally designed triptych of shopping galleries in very deep perspective, it did, however, seem to crowd the rather large chorus that included 14 youngsters from the Chicago Children’s Choir.

I understand Laing’s intention is to dramatize street activity but it nearly pushes everyone on stage to the edge of the orchestra pit.

I had the opportunity to see La Boheme at the Met around 1979 and was struck by the way Laing took the opposite tack regarding the entrance to the city at the beginning of Act Three. He preferred  to put the focus on the tavern where Mimi comes to find Rodolfo.

Granted the Lyric stage is not as deep as Lincoln Center but I missed the sense of place. I am not sure that an uninformed audience would even understand what was going on between the arriving workers, merchants, and gendarmes near the city’s entrance.

Both my companion and I found the lighting design of Mimi Jordan Sherin to be actually distracting at times.  This included the fact that the entire lighting array and artificial snow mechanism was visible as you glanced up to read the text display. There was a red light off stage-left that I am not sure was part of the performance and the moonlight was very underwhelming.  Much of this might be remedied by sitting in the balcony, though I’m not sure.

So yes there are a few awkward and regretfully even distracting moments but in the end this is chiefly about the music of Puccini which is lyrical and beautifully performed. I challenge you not to go out the door humming a tune.

If you have never seen “La Boheme” you will enjoy this production. I believe younger audiences will appreciate the lighter, more modern visual interpretation. If you feel you have seen it before and are not sure about seeing it again, this is a fresh take and certainly worth experiencing.

DETAILS: “La Bohème” at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, has seven performances through Jan. 31, 2019.  Running time is 2 hrs., 15 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera/La boheme.

Reno Lovison

 

 

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