Lyric Opera Presents LA BOHÈME Review – Puccini Magic at Season Opener

A small army of clipboard-toting Lyric staff members on the ready to get patron names scurried to keep up with the photographer hired by the Lyric’s Women’s Board to capture the moment. You too, if waiting on the red carpet outside the Lyric Opera House, would have been repeatedly pressed into cellphone photographer service to help your fellow Chicagoans—and some out-of-towners including notable Hollywood celebrities speckling the crowd—to capture the moment.

Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
The Coopers had first attended the Lyric Production of MY FAIR LADY, and another production since. This was their third Lyric Opera event and the first time they attended a Season Opening Photo: Peter Kachergis

Silks, satins, glitter and tuxedos, the one thing missing (thankfully!) were selfie sticks because who would carry those when hands were hankering for the champagne flutes on sale in the lobby?

This was the kick-off to the Lyric’s 64th Season, where every queue for drinks, snacks or restroom afforded a people-watching banquet. When the lobby lights flickered signaling time to grab your seats, you could hear more than a few muffled comments of disappointment. It was not unlike a pack of rollicking children being summoned by scolding parents to get inside before it gets dark.

 

Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Fashion-forward actor-singer Billy Dawson, especially tall in spangled heels, was a lobby standout. Dawson has performed on the Lyric stage twice before, among other critically-acclaimed performances in Chicago theaters Photo: Peter Kachergis
Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Lyric Opera 64th Season Opening Night Scene in the Rice Grand Foyer Photo: Peter Kachergis

Lyric Opera Opens Season with LA BOHÈME

Lyric Opera though, no stranger to perfection, had picked LA BOHÈME for the season opening, with a production so compelling that the lobby glamour was vacuumed quickly out of mind. This is Puccini’s opera, perhaps semi-autobiographical, depicting the life and loves of struggling artists, Bohemians, who live for their art and struggle to pay rent or put food on the table. These Bohemians are young men who fall in love with a sincerity that feels so refreshingly quaint in these in your face grab-them-by-their-pussy times. In their marketing materials, the Lyric refers to LA BOHÈME as the first Rent. And, as pointed out at the Lyric’s free Millennium Park concert a month or so ago, the score features what might be the world’s best-known love-at-first-sight scene.

The action starts in a barely furnished attic apartment that could be an artist’s loft in Pilsen. The gaggle of friends with an abundance of energy but paucity of funds are hanging out, to use the modern parlance, and then go out on the town except for poet Rodolfo, who hangs back in the loft to work on his writing.

Love at First Sight

Enter Mimì, a poor seamstress neighbor who needs a light for her candle, and the passion ignited between the two is memorialized by the iconic melody of Che gelida manina!, which returns most memorably at the opera’s requisite dying scene, where Rodolfo holds dying Mimì in his arms.

Counterpoint to Mimì and Rodolfo---Flirtatious Musetta and Jealous Marcello

In between these bookends a parallel story is told of flirtatious Musetta and her jealous on-again-off-again lover Marcello. Musetta is meek Mimì's opposite, literally dancing on tables to make sure she remains in the spotlight.

To this writer’s ears, it’s the way in which Puccini uses the counterpoint stories musically to constantly highlight the emotions of any moment—from boisterous partying to intimate love notes —that makes LA BOHÈME so accessible. The musical themes recycle so that in the short few hours performance time they take on old friend familiarity. It comes as no surprise when we read in the Program Notes that hearing this score as a boy was a key event in launching Domingo Hindoyan, the night’s Venezuelan-born conductor, on his musical career.   This is music that tells you what’s going on emotionally even when you don’t glance up to see the projected libretto translation. Opera diehards can come back later in the season for heavy Wagner injections. Lyric has the very good sense to open the season with Puccini lightness.

More, at least for this writer, the magic of Puccini’s music is made accessible in this particular production because these performers are singing and acting greats.

Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Danielle de Niese as Musetta and Zachary Nelson as Marcello Photo: © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018
Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Photo: © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018
Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Photo: © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

For anyone who saw Danielle de Niese waving to the crowd as she took long lilting strides onto center stage of the Pritzker Pavilion in the free Lyric season sampler concert, it doesn’t really surprise when she as Musetta bounces and weaves on top of the restaurant tables to make sure her one-time lover Marcello (Zachary Nelson) can’t fail but notice her. What does surprise is to learn in the program that this is a relatively new role for her!

Yes, Michael Fabiano’s tenor voice rings with the sweetness of Rodolfo’s love as Puccini scored it, and Zachary Nelson’s baritone perfectly captures Marcello’s emotional tango with Musetta. For this writer though, it is also how they, along with bass Adrian Sâmpetrean as Colline and baritone Ricardo José Rivera as Schaunard, posture and move in ways that exude a happy masculinity that also helps convey the Bohemian spirit. It’s as though we are looking in on a male bonding drumming session.

Lyric Opera LA BOHEME
Maria Agresta as Mimì Photo: Andrew Cioffi c. Lyric Opera of Chicago

These are some of the ways we feel Director Richard Jones’ touch, which for this writer is most visible by how he positions Maria Agresta as Mimi in the various scenes, to always give her the look of vulnerability that is the essence of her role.   Agresta’s singing is superb, and even better in duet with Fabiano. Puccini’s score, these singers—magic!

The one mixed note, for this reviewer is the set design. For some reason, in some scenes, there were lights or something above the stage ever trying to steal our eyes upward. The loft set rotates to become a restaurant, or rather is rotated by stagehands in between sets. Some might also experience this a magic interruptus moment.

Then again, if you take the Lyric Opera’s backstage tour—and do!—your appreciation for stagecraft becomes more front-of-mind when you see a Lyric performance. Consider simply the scale that goes into making the constant snow we see in this performance, explained in this Lyric video.

Perhaps the most amazing thing of all about LA BOHÈME—as with all Lyric productions that require booking stars years in advance and technical feats galore to pull them off— is that there are so few performances in the run! Ten more performances remain. You can get single tickets but a better plan is to get a season subscription.

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Conductor: DOMINGO HINDOYAN

Director: RICHARD JONES

Set and Costume Designer: STEWART LAING

Lighting Designer: MIMI JORDAN SHERIN

Chorus Master: MICHAEL BLACK

Children’s Chorus: JOSEPHINE LEE

Cast: MICHAEL FABIANO, ADRIAN SÂMPETREAN, RICARDO JOSÉ RIVERA, JAKE GARDNER, MARIA AGRESTA, GEOFFREY AGPALO, MARIO ROJAS, JAKE GARDNER, DANIELLE DE NIESE, NIKOLAS WENZEL, RONALD WATKINS, CHICAGO CHILDREN’S CHOIR

When:

Various dates and times now until January 29, 2019

 

Where:

Lyric Opera House
20 North Wacker
Chicago

Tickets:

$49+

For information and tickets visit the Lyric Opera website or call  312-827-5600.

 

Photography:  Production photos by Andrew Cioffi and Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018; cast and production team headshots in bottom slider movie posted on  Picture This Post YouTube Channel courtesy of Lyric Opera; opening night audience pictures by Peter Kachergis

Music in YouTube Video- "Che Gelida Manina" courtesy of Lyric Opera.  Hear more music from La Boheme and learn more at the Lyric Opera  Resources Page

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

Watch this video previewing Picture This Post's OPERAS WE LOVE - roundup.

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