MUSIC An opening night ends in tears and cheers

Photo By Todd Rosenberg

What: “La bohème”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Oct. 20
(second run: Jan. 10 through 25)

Tickets: Lyricopera.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2018-19 season with Puccini’s “La bohème,” one of the most popular operas in the canon. The new production, shared with Covent Garden and Teatro Real Madrid, is a mixed bag, but has gleaming moments of remarkable beauty and heartbreaking tragedy.

Doomed lovers Mimi and Rodolfo are the center of the opera and they are sung with great skill and dramatic effect by soprano Maria Agresta and tenor Michael Fabiano, the latter making his Lyric Opera debut.

Agresta is all that one could wish for in a Mimi. She brings tenderness and vulnerability to the poor seamstress who meets a poet when her candle goes out on the stairs. From first to last Agresta sings with soaring beauty, floating glorious high notes and employing a splendid legato line. Her depiction immediately captures your attention and your heart.

Fabiano sings with both flair and conviction, showing us a confident young man in love whose only true problem is that he cannot provide all the comforts his ailing lover requires.

The end of the first act is an extended love scene which is touching and sweet, capturing the excitement and warmth of young love. Agresta has the right combination of gentleness and sincerity while Fabiano brings a masculine nobility.

The second pair of lovers, Musetta (a singer) and Marcello (a painter) are sung lustily by soprano Danielle de Niese and baritone Zachary Nelson. They have been lovers in the past, and neither could forget the other. Nelson is full of the bravado of a jilted boyfriend while de Niese has amazing charisma. Musetta’s charms are considerably muted in her second act appearance, where director Richard Jones chooses to make her big entrance, Musetta’s Waltz, the baudy effect of far too much drink. She drunkenly and unsteadily takes to the tabletops of Café Momus where she thereupon sheds her knickers and dangles them awkwardly in Marcello’s face. It’s a huge miscalculation by Jones, who cannot imagine that a woman might decide, being fully in control of her faculties, to win back her former lover with daring and extroverted displays of her feminine allure.

Bass Adrian Sampetrean is a fine Colline, the philosopher who sings wistfully to his coat before selling it to obtain necessities for the dying Mimi. Baritone Ricardo Jose Rivera offers a sturdy and attractive Schaunard, a musician who finds himself flush with ready cash on Christmas Eve after working for an eccentric dude who asks him to make music until his parrot dies.

Set and costume designer Stewart Laing has created a stunning second act. With the stage full of the bohemians, their girlfriends, a large chorus, a children’s chorus, and a military band, this act of “Boheme” can be difficult to stage with so many folks to accommodate. Laing has created not a single set for this part of the opera, but three very different configurations. First is a trio of brilliantly lit arcades full of shops and shoppers. This eventually slides away to be replaced with the fancy interior of the Café Momus, which eventually gives way to a parade area defined by street lights on which the band closes out the act. It is visually sumptuous and immensely satisfying.

Far less successful is the garret in which the bohemians live, which is where the action of the two outer acts takes place. The attic is so spare as to be unbelievable. Four exuberant men could hardly have made this an occasional meeting place, let alone the site of so many of their adventures as well as their home.

Jones is superb at capturing the drama of the opera, but seems at sea with the light-hearted elements. Before Mimi returns to their garret to die, the men have a humorous turn which comes off not as funny but instead quite dull. “La bohème” is meant to show the full emotional lives of the characters, both smiles and tears, but Jones only truly captures the sadness.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra sounds full and resplendent although conductor Domingo Hindoyan, making his Lyric debut, often lets his forces drown out the singers. The Lyric Opera Chorus, looking festive and happy, sounds marvelous. Members of the Chicago Children’s Choir (prepared by Josephine Lee) provide grace and embody the joy of Christmas.

The story’s tragedy is enough to carry this production and I for one had tears streaming down my face when the curtain fell. The packed audience was full of cheers for the curtain calls.