Dallas — The Dallas Opera’s latest production in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House is a work that consistently sits at the top of the frequently performed list: Puccini’s La bohème. It ranks third on that list, behind Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen, respectively.
It is no secret as to why Bohème, which premiered in 1896, is a mega-hit and continues to gather adoring fans. The opera overflows with beautiful themes, passionate singing and a three-hanky ending. The plot concerns a group of starving artists in 19th century Paris, and is about young love found, lost, and regained—but on a deathbed.
It has survived outrageous stagings by so-called “Eurotrash” directors, aging sopranos, bellowing tenors and mediocre, uninspired and amateurish productions, not to mention stagings with unlikely looking (read: not starving) singers portraying this randy group of twentysomethings. It has even been turned into an award-winning Broadway musical, Jonathan Larson’s Rent.
There is no leap of theater or suspension of disbelief required at the Dallas Opera. Everyone on stage looks exactly like they should, as if this was a cast for a film. All of the leads are also accomplished singers of the first order; a perfect combination.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s realistically abstract set and Peter J. Hall’s exuberant, period-correct costumes take us to the Latin Quarter without a single anachronism to distract.
Ana María Martínez is an excellent Mimi. It is clear that she is not well from her body language, right from her first entrance in a detailed and subtle performance. Her voice is darker than is usually heard in this role and, at Sunday’s matinee it took her awhile to get going. Once she did, however, she let the phrases flow out, nicely nuanced by dynamic shadings.
Tenor Bryan Hymel has a virile Italianate sound, but it is somewhat creamier and smoother than the pure squillando. He gets one demerit for singing phrases clearly marked piano (soft) as tutta forza (as loud as possible). This used to be the case in all of the world’s opera houses but, these days, a soft floating tenor sound is a requirement. Also on the “too bad” list is too bad that he didn’t sing what Puccini wrote at the end of Act One and opted for another high C instead. Puccini’s version is much more beautiful and satisfying, although what Hymel sang (doubling the soprano line) is often heard.
Davinia Rodriguez chews the scenery as Musetta. Her voice also has a darker overtone than the soubrette we get most of the time, but she has all the required flexibility and sass. Jonathan Beyer is excellent as her much put-upon lover Marcello. He tosses off his exchange of insults with a touch of humor, making Marcello a more sympathetic character than he appears in the hands of other singers. Here, the pair is not nasty to each other. In fact, they have been fighting so long that “tit-for-tat” has become their method of communication.
Alexander Vinogradov, as Colline, is that rarity of rarities—a real basso. Steven LaBrie gives his rendition of the musician, Schaunard, a dose of charm. All of this attention to characterization gives each of the four roommates clear-cut identities—something that doesn’t always happen when this opera is staged.
Secondary roles are of primary importance when such a fine cast is fielded. Stefan Szkafarowsky gives Benoit, the bamboozled landlord, and Alcindoro, Musetta’s latest sugar-granddaddy, enough individuality that few in the audience realize it is the same singer in a double role. Jay Gardner is fun as the motley-attired Parpignol. On Sunday, he had some trouble keeping his two children assistants in line, but this brief scene was a delightful break from the intensity.
Director Peter Kazaras, a former singer himself, gets the credit for tying all the characters together and making them real. The staging has movement, but every step or gesture shows subtext and motivation, adding to the storyline. A large multi-purpose platform in the middle of the stage causes Kazaras some problems in the crowd street scene in Act Two. He has no option but to herd dozens upon dozens of singers, vendors and urchins into two tight groups on either side. He has an occasional over-the-top lapse, like Musetta’s shenanigans to get rid of her rich old man du jour—but the audience loved it.
The surprisingly large onstage marching band, attired in Turkish regalia, does a fine job as they march through the crowded second act stage. Opera companies that try to save money by having the band part played in the orchestra have not achieved a full Bohème.
The orchestra sounded wonderful on Sunday. An occasional intonation problem was only noticeable because of its rarity.
Puccini’s style requires the judicious use of rubato, or musical give and take. In fact, some single measures are spread out over more time than the notation on the page would suggest. Conductor Riccardo Frizza has a good feel for Puccini-esque rubato, but he overused it throughout the performance. Much of the music of Puccini’s big-money musical climaxes repeats a number of times and it is the wise conductor who knows when to stretch and when to keep moving along. Frizza luxuriated in every single phase, which slowed the pace and dulled the effect when significant slowing was required. His overindulgence became more noticeable, and less agreeable, as the opera progressed.
But enough nitpicking.
These criticisms are just minor detractions from what is a beautifully sung and intensely acted production. This is a Bohème to be savored; one that will please even those who know it well. It would also make an excellent first opera experience for anyone—provided they bring a hanky.
You can even see it for free in a live simulcast at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, March 21. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the opera starts at 7:30 p.m. Even the usually expensive parking is complimentary. Reserve your free tickets at www.dallasopera.org/simulcast.