Netrebko’s Windy City Debut

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 9.3.2013 (JLZ)

Mimì: Anna Netrebko
Rodolfo: Joseph Calleja
Musetta: Elizabeth Futral
Marcello: Lucas Meachem
Colline: Andrea Silvestrelli
Schaunard: Joseph Lim
Benoit/Alcindoro: Dale Travis

Director: Louisa Muller
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Walter Mahoney
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Guest Chorus Master: Ian Robertson

As exciting as the season’s opening night, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko’s debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago boasted a full house for Puccini’s La bohème. The audience applauded her entrance in the first act, something rarely seen at Lyric. Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja also made his Lyric debut and he was also warmly received. (In January and February the roles had been sung by Ana Maria Martinez and Dmitri Pittas.)

As Mimi, Netrebko gave a fine performance, with her clear, focused soprano voice filling the house. She delivered her first-act aria “Mi chiaman Mimì” with finesse, deft phrasing and even sound. She was equally impressive in the third act, particular in the duet “O buon Marcello, aiuto!” with American baritone Lucas Meachman. The final duet “Sono andati,” with Calleja, was moving due to the singers’ sensitive interaction. Even so, Netrebko’s full-bodied singing was sometimes at odds with Mimi’s tragic situation as an individual succumbing to tuberculosis—at times difficult for the ears to believe—and yet rewarding nonetheless.

Calleja was impressive as Rodolfo, with his supple voice making this demanding role seem effortless; in the declamatory scene that opens the first act, his diction was exemplary, and his lyricism in “Che gelida manino” gave a sense of his exceptional technique. While he can fill the house when needed, Calleja used diminuendos and other subtle shadings for greater nuance. He was similarly appealing in the third-act aria “Mimì é una civetta,” and just as intense in the final act, particularly his duet with Netrebko, “Sono andati?”—note-perfect in execution and emotionally charged in delivery.

Lucas Meacham rounded the cast with a solid, believable Marcello. His sense of ensemble contributed much to the romantic second act, and the third-act duet with Netrebko gave the audience an even fuller sense of his masterful voice. Ryan Opera Center alumna Elizabeth Futral gave a stylish performance as Musetta, singing “Quando m’en vo” with great subtlety. The other Bohemians were just as strong, with Andrea Silvestrelli particularly memorable as Colline. The “Coat aria” in the final act (“Vecchia zimarra”) was appropriately dramatic, and Joseph Lim gave an admirable performance as Schaunard.

The production, from the San Francisco Opera, works well in Lyric’s space. Between the costumes and other accoutrements, the setting is conventional, depicting the Paris of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Some aspects were uneven, such as the static presentation of the chorus in the second act, which seemed anticlimactic after the highly dramatic scene change for the duet at the end of the first act. Lyric’s previous La bohème was stronger in its second act staging, with the chorus in staggered entrances and physical motion—all more intriguing than the sometimes inert group at the edge of the stage here. Yet the musical direction stood out, and that is entirely to the credit of conductor Emmanuel Villaume. The orchestra played exceptionally well and responsively—the musicians’ intensity a strong factor—as their contribution to a memorable evening.

James L. Zychowicz