Despite Excellent Artists, a Mixed Bag on Lyric’s Opening Night

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago / Domingo Hindoyan (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago. 6.10.2018. (JLZ)

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s La bohème © Todd Rosenberg

Mimì – Maria Agresta
Rodolfo – Michael Fabiano
Musetta – Danielle de Niese
Marcello – Zachary Nelson
Schaunard – Ricardo José Rivera
Colline – Adrian Sâmpetrean
Benoît & Alcindoro – Jake Gardner
Parpignol – Mario Rojas

Director – Richard Jones
Designer – Stewart Laing
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Chorus Master – Michael Black
Children’s Chorus Master – Josephine Lee

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2018–2019 season opened with a production of Puccini’s La bohème shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Teatro Real Madrid. For this staging, designer Stewart Laing updated the work from the 1830s to the turn of the last century, a decision that allowed a stunning staging of the second act.

In contrast to the impoverished garret of the Bohemians depicted in the libretto, Laing’s vertical structures to represent fashionable Parisian arcades evoked the era’s opulence. The first and last acts make use of a large room with very spare accoutrements, while the third act resembled traditional settings using the city gates. While this reviewer’s seats were obstructed—behind some unusually large people who moved back and forth throughout the evening—from the side, the few clear glimpses showed a production offering a fresh take.

The cast is laudable for its selection of outstanding international artists. As Mimì, Maria Agresta gave an almost perfect reading of the role. Her textured voice captured the character, and it was refreshing to hear the precision she brought, along with sensitivity to text and deft shaping of Puccini’s lines.

Michael Fabiano was similarly strong in portraying Rodolfo with his evident mastery of range, tessitura, and intricate rhythms. At times in Act I, he was unnecessarily extroverted, when his character was alone onstage with Mimì, particularly the softer scoring of ‘O soave fanciulla’. That aside, his full, even tenor voice was impressive throughout, and he commanded the audience’s attention, especially in the final act’s delicate passages.

Baritone Zachary Nelson gave the role of Marcello a first-rate reading, shaping the part as if it were composed for him. Nelson’s rich, burnished voice sounded effortless in some of the denser scorings. With great style, he moved easily between Puccini’s declamatory and lyric motifs.

As Musetta, Danielle de Niese was memorable in a staging that required the singer to balance histrionically charged physical comedy with the demands of the iconic second-act aria ‘Quando m’en vo’. It was a valiant effort that was sometimes difficult to hear. Some decorations notated in the part disappeared in the full ensemble and, at times, were the result of the singer’s stage placement. In the last act, de Niese offered a different side of Musetta, reflecting the poise and clarity when her character shows tender care for Mimì and Rodolfo.

The rest of the cast was strong, with the quartet of Bohemians nicely balanced and richly sung. Ricardo José Rivera and Adrian Sâmpetrean were exemplary, and particularly effective within their ensembles. In Act II’s final scene, they not only acted well, but with their fine voices and well-thought stage presence, helped pave the way for the tragic ending of the fourth.

Domingo Hindoyan’s debut at Lyric brings a talented young conductor to the house. He clearly knows the score and brought enthusiasm for it. Yet the orchestral responses to his nuanced direction often resulted in loud passages. Puccini masterfully scored various dynamic levels, such as the instrumental passage that builds to Rodolfo’s ‘Chè?! Mimì!’ near the end of the third act. Unfortunately, throughout the evening, there were long sequences of undifferentiated volume that obscured some details.

Stage director Richard Jones is likewise laudable for his blocking. The often good effort to match the stage directions with musical gestures was evident in many places, especially the Act I dialogue that leads to the famous ‘Che gelida manina’. At some points, though, the principals were noticeably waiting unnaturally for the orchestra before making their gestures, which could be easily remedied as the cast settles into Hindoyan’s pacing.

The staging of Musetta’s aria ‘Quando me’n vo’ is over the top, and pushed the scene’s comic elements to farce. It prompted some members of the audience to laugh at many lines in the third and fourth acts, where the text should not elicit such responses, especially the pathos at the dénouement.

James L. Zychowicz

[Editor’s note: As of 9 October, the orchestra of Lyric Opera is on strike. Some performances have been canceled. Prospective ticket holders should Audience Services (312-827-6500).]

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