Soprano’s moving Mimi, fresh staging lift Lyric Opera’s “Bohème”

Sun Oct 07, 2018 at 4:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Maria Agresta (Mimi) and Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) in Puccini’s “La Boheme ” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Lyric Opera

If you like snow in your Bohème, this is the show for you.

The snow is falling throughout Act 3 and even before the house lights go down in Lyric Opera’s new production of Puccini’s La Bohème, which opened the company’s season Saturday night.

Bohème may be the most perfect opera in that it has it all: youthful artists, high spirits, comedy, falling in love, breakups, reconciliations, and a beautiful death from tuberculosis, all in 100 minutes.

Nor does it hurt that the romantic fable of the 19th-century Parisian poet Rodolfo and his love for the consumptive seamstress Mimi also has some of the richest, most gorgeous vocal music ever put to paper, even by Puccini’s standard. 

That Lyric Opera’s new Bohème opened the season on schedule was a relief in itself. Any lurking worries about a musicians strike by the orchestra and chorus—who are working without a contract while negotiations continue—were put away, at least for the evening.

A coproduction with Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Teatro Real Madrid, this new Stewart Laing-Richard Jones production proved something of a mixed blessing: Laing’s scenic designs were largely successful; Jones’s stage direction, not so much.

Few opera-house warhorses could benefit more from a fresh coat of paint than Bohème. Even to aficionados, the inescapable tropes of the artists’ dark, tiny attic garret and the usual horizontal, crowd-packed Cafe Momus seem like ineradicable fixtures of every staging.

Laing and Jones have clearly done some serious thinking in their wipe-the-slate-clean approach to this beloved standard. Thankfully, the production team respects Puccini’s work, presenting a largely traditional staging without veering off into trendy revisionist claptrap.  

Stewart Laing’s scenic designs are nearly all gain. Granted, the minimalist white-wood, triangular set for the framing acts is initially jarring in its barn-like starkness. This artists’ garret is even more barren than usual, without even a bed or table. By contrast, the outdoor set for Act 3 is traditional.

Laing’s greatest scenic coup is in Act 2 with two eye-popping designs. Instead of the standard unit-set cafe, Laing presents a dazzling trio of Parisian street arcades, where Mimi, Rodolfo and the crowd promenade and window-shop. The gleaming design is stunning in its scale—the press photos don’t do it justice—as well as conceptually audacious. Laing’s deep, back-to-front perspective stands the usual wide-horizontal opera staging tradition on its head.

The sets revolve to reveal, not the usual raucous Cafe Momus street milieu, but an elegant, white-linened, fine-dining Michelin emporium that is nearly as striking in its sleek, stylish brilliance. (Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bright lighting does a 180 throughout from the usual subdued, romantic chiaroscuro.)  

Laing also designed the equally sumptuous costumes, which are outwardly 19th century with a dash of the contemporary. The nifty open scene changes between acts provide further visual interest. 

The only questionable design element is that abundant, notably faux snow, which adds little and seems almost ironical in its glittering artificiality.

If designer Laing’s Lyric debut is largely a resounding success, the same can’t be said for the directorial half of the equation. 

Richard Jones’s most celebrated show is his well-traveled revisionist retooling of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel as Freudian nightmare. The director sticks closer to the libretto here but Puccini’s brand of sophisticated humor doesn’t appear to be in Jones’ wheelhouse.

The lighter moments of the opera largely fall flat in Jones’s unsubtle direction, which treats the comic elements in either crass (see below) or juvenile fashion. Rarely have the Bohemians’ antics provided so few laughs; their drawing pictures of naked women on the walls in Act 4 is more adolescent than amusing. 

Also Jones rarely seemed in synch with the relaxed naturalism of the piece—viz the singers’ constant frenetic movements, as with the overdone, exaggerated shivering from the cold. More crucially the gentle, humane qualities and warm-hearted innocence of the opera are largely missing in action.

Mimi has been a signature role for Maria Agresta, who made her Lyric debut last season as Liu in Turandot. The Italian soprano seemed to take a while to warm up Saturday; while “Mi chiamano Mimi” was rendered with a wonderfully intimate, story-telling quality, Agresta had some pitchy moments, as well as sliding up to her (somewhat precarious) high notes.

From there on, her singing was terrific, with Agresta soaring over the Cafe Momus ensemble, and floating a heart-tugging, sensitively nuanced “Donde lieta usci.”

Dramatically, Agresta was a world-class Mimi in every respect. A lovely, petite presence, the soprano seemed to physically embody the character of the shy, fragile seamstress. Throughout this cooly postmodern, flinty-eyed staging, Agresta brought some much-needed warmth and heart to the proceedings.

The final scene was so affecting, so beautifully sung and realistically acted by Agresta, you could put it on film. She made Mimi’s last moments almost unbearably heartbreaking, even to the professional cynics in the audience. One could go a lifetime and never encounter a more moving performance of Mimi than that given by Maria Agresta Saturday night.

The other principals were not quite on the same level.

Making his belated Lyric debut, Michael Fabiano offered mixed rewards as Rodolfo. The American tenor was disappointing in Act I, sounding raw-toned in his upper range with a throaty top C in “Che gelida manina.” As with Agresta, Fabiano’s vocalism improved as the evening unfolded, the tenor singing with greater strength and flexibility. He brought moments of tonal sensitivity when called for, notably so in the reunited couple’s touching moments at the end of Act 3. 

Fabiano’s main problem came with the dramatic side, in his strangely louche portrayal of Rodolfo. Fabiano’s frat-boy swagger made it seem like he was playing Pinkerton rather than the affable, goodhearted poet. Maybe the characterization was one of Jones’ dubious directorial conceits, but one wished that Mimi would drop this hyperactive jerk and take up with Schaunard or Colline instead. 

Danielle de Niese (Musetta) and Zachary Nelson (Marcello) in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Danielle de Niese sang solidly in her Act 2 waltz but the soprano’s miles-over-the-top Musetta was something of a trial. Watching her leaping across the restaurant’s table tops in her bright red gown was undeniably a terrific visual, but less would have been much more. 

De Niese and Jones dispensed with Musetta’s flirtatious allure to make the coquette into a cartoonish floozy—staggering drunkenly about, kissing a woman passionately, and taking off her panties to waggle in front of Marcello. Classy. 

If the conceit was to make Musetta’s behavior more plausibly scandalous (to get her ex’s attention) than a mildly suggestive song, the shenanigans were off-putting in their dumbed-down vulgarity, reminiscent of the company’s scabrous 2015 Le nozze di Figaro. Even a better actress than de Niese would find it impossible to make a credible turn from campy caricature to the pious, sympathetic figure of the final act.

Like Fabiano, Zachary Nelson proved charisma-challenged as the painter, Marcello; his unsmiling, saturnine presence made it no surprise that Musetta continually cuts loose for greener pastures. Vocally, Nelson was hit and miss. His grainy baritone was sorely underpowered in Marcello’s Act 2 breakout solo, and while singing passionately, he seemed to be straining, with uneven projection throughout the evening.

Despite director Jones’s starkly unfunny approach to the comedy of the outer acts, the remaining Bohemians managed to bring a bit of humor and filled out the cast admirably. 

Adrian Sâmpetrean is billed as a true bass, but his voice sounds more baritonal, lacking the subterranean ballast needed for Colline. Nonetheless, the Romanian singer brought a refined, lieder-like elegance to his farewell to his (oddly, bright red) coat. 

Making a fine company debut, first-year Ryan Center member, baritone Ricardo Jose Rivera, was a worthy Schaunard. Veteran baritone Jake Gardner made a refreshingly understated presence, for a change, in the duo foil roles of Benoit and Alcindoro.

Conductor Domingo Hindoyan was a capable rather than inspired presence in the pit. The young Venezuelan accompanied the singers adeptly and kept the action on track in his company debut. But considering the myriad opportunities to be mined in Puccini’s marvelous score, there was little wit or sparkle evident under Hindoyan’s routinier conducting.

Even with that—and playing without a contract—the Lyric Opera Orchestra handled Puccini’s score with typical professionalism and polish.

The Lyric Opera Chorus had an uncharacteristically lackluster outing on opening night. Michael Black’s singers sounded lightweight in tone and ragged at times in their entrances and ensemble. One can only wonder if the unsettled contract situation is having an effect—or if the drastic reductions in core chorus members for budgetary reasons is starting to impact performance quality.

La Bohème runs through October 20 and then again from January 10-25, 2019.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Soprano’s moving Mimi, fresh staging lift Lyric Opera’s “Bohème””

  1. Posted Oct 08, 2018 at 2:24 pm by Philip Kraus

    Always a pleasure to read your well written, detailed reviews.

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