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A Striking Bohème Lands in Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago
01/10/2019 -  & January 13, 16*, 19, 22, 25, 29, 31, 2019
Giacomo Puccini: La bohème
Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Adrian Sampetrean (Colline), Ricardo José Rivera (Schaunard), Jake Gardner (Benoît, Alcindoro), Maria Agresta (Mimì), Danielle de Niese (Musetta)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Domingo Hindoyan (conductor)
Richard Jones (production), Stewart Laing (sets and costumes), Mimì Jordan Sherin (lights)

D. de Niese, Z. Nelson, R. J. Rivera, M. Fabiano, M. Agresta
(© Todd Rosenberg)

It is hard to get excited about Giacomo Puccini’s cliché tale about broke creatives falling in love while trying to make ends meet in a bourgeois Paris where capital is king and narcissism penetrates even the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. The doomed romance between Rodolfo and Mimì blossoms on Christmas Eve and fades by spring, tragically resuming in her last moments before death in a bitter reminder that while life’s chances are frequently missed, exes, if given enough time and self-regard, crawl back after things go south with their new amours. Rodolfo and Mimì’s turbulent counterparts Marcello and Musetta might get it and adjust their on-again, off-again affair, but they probably do not. After repeated viewings, the adolescent characters’ absence of experience and lack of emotional control becomes wearying, and even off-putting.

Richard Jones’s production, which premiered in London last season and came new to open Chicago’s season last October, offers clever creative twists while strictly preserving the opera’s nineteenth-century milieu. Mobile sets are twisted and turned by stagehands to create new locales without the need for the painful second intermission that often makes the opera drag out. The Act II tableau depicting Café Momus is laid out like a more modern French café, with banquette-style tables set side by set facing the audience, allowing us to observe all of the characters’ interactions and intrigues. Musetta steals the show with her shoe farce, faking discomfort in order to send her older protector Alcindoro off to get another one. Here she is so seductive that the mere suggestion of her pain not only controls the old fool, but also commands the attention of the entire staff of waiters, any or all of whom could easily fall under her narcissistic spell. The alluring soprano Danielle de Niese built on her London performance to strip off her undergarments and torment Marcello with them while standing on a table in heels – and all while singing her heart out despite an announced cold. Less compelling is the shared garret, where Rodolfo both meets and is permanently parted from Mimì. Jones’s production makes it a bare unfinished attic that looks more like a freshly raised barn than the hopeless digs of starving artists.

Bohème‘s enduring popularity draws virtually any singer with the right vocal type to aspire to its lead roles. De Niese’s stunning return as Musetta was matched by Maria Agresta, who reprised Mimì for Chicago’s cold January audience. Agresta has left behind her bel canto parts and has now risen to the more demanding dramatic soprano repertoire. Her Mimì resounded in the important moments, but never more than in the moving Act III quartet that counterpoises the two couples, which have overlapping similarities when one looks past the sentimentality. As her Rodolfo, Michael Fabiano delivered a compelling portrayal, albeit with moments of strain in the part’s challenging upper reaches. The talented young American baritone Zachary Nelson was a reliably strong Marcello. Jake Gardner made a strong impression in the oft paired roles of the landlord Benoît and Musetta’s sugar daddy Alcindoro. Adrian Sampetrean’s well voiced Colline and Ricardo José Rivera’s effective Schaunard rounded out a bright cast. Venezuelan conductor Domingo Hindoyan led a fine performance.

Paul du Quenoy



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