Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume
Director Louisa Muller
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago
For all its stature and perennial popularity, Puccini’s La boheme (1896) is far from being an epic drama – farther, even, than the highly personal Madama Butterfly. In many ways it remains a collection of vignettes, as was its inspiration, the semi-autobiographical Scenes de la vie de boheme of Henri Murger. The structure of this tale of four idealistic starving Parisian artists and their loves is of a piece with its protagonists’ characters, who seem to revel in living from moment to moment: for all the trauma present, Puccini gives us a tour of their day-to-day struggles, whimsies, and fancies; and one senses throughout the opera a prolonged, alluring glimpse into a life of romanticized poverty full of freedom, bonhomie, and the joys of youth. Puccini’s wistful and tender music capture this mood perfectly from start to finish, even if it is ultimately the love duets that prove most memorable. It is something of a pity that the highly colorful and often very charming orchestral scoring is nearly always treated as accompaniment to the singers, leaving one very little chance to delight in it without the distraction of the (also exquisite) vocal lines. As so often is the case in Puccini, it is clear that this music was a major influence in the development of the American theater music of a half-century later in harmonic and melodic sensibility, though with an unmistakeable Italian flair.
The singers joining the Lyric’s cast for this month’s performances are tenor Joseph Calleja as the poet Rodolfo and noted soprano Anna Netrebko – in her Lyric debut – as his sickly lover, Mimi (replacing Dmitri Pittas and Ana Maria Martinez, respectively). Calleja turned in an excellent performance, with the exception of a few cracked high notes here and there; but if any of the cast stole the show it was Netrebko. The tremendous depth and nuance of her portrayal made Mimi all the more poignant; her coy aloofness upon first meeting Rodolfo distinctly gave way to her love for Rodolfo as Netrebko revealed her full vocal splendor in their Act I duet; indeed, if anything the subtlety of emotion she communicated grew throughout the opera in clear reflection Mimi’s growing anguish: this is artistry of a high order. There was little to complain of in the remainder of the cast, staying on from earlier performances. Of particular note, perhaps, were Elizabeth Futral as Musetta and Andrea Silvestrelli as the philosopher Colline, the latter reduplicating his fine performance in the Lyric’s concurrent production of Rigoletto.
Credit must also go to conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who drew exceptionally polished, vibrant, and nuanced playing from the orchestra to match the stage action. He showed himself again (following last season’s Tales of Hoffman) to be among Lyric’s finest conducting talent, with a gift for keeping the orchestra on its toes as well as true musical inspiration, and it is a shame he is not scheduled to return next season.
La boheme is not the greatest opera ever composed, but it is perhaps the quintessentially atmospheric operatic experience; it justifies its reputation not by overwhelming the audience with dramatic power but by sweeping us up into the many small currents of life and emotion that run through it and depositing us at its heartrending yet intimate conclusion. Such a work needs a really sensitive performance to make its full effect, and that is just what can be heard at Lyric this month (aided by Michael Yeargan’s warmly evocative set).
Date Reviewed: March 12, 2013
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL , (312) 332-2244, http://www.lyricopera.org/, tickets $64 – $279, running time 2 hours, 21 minutes with one intermission, through March 28, 2013