Dallas — The Dallas Opera’s production of Puccini’s much-loved opera La bohème opened to a rapturous audience in the Winspear Opera House on Friday evening. It is the composer’s most popular work. According to Opera Sense, La bohème was performed 598 times worldwide during the 2017-18 season.
Puccini’s opera is set to a libretto in Italian by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. But don’t worry if your Italian is rusty because there are projected English supertitles. In turn, the libretto was based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes from the Bohemian Life) by Henri Murger.
One of the reasons for this opera’s popularity, other than the soaring melodies and consistently beautiful and dramatic music, is that the plot is more realistic than most operas. It is about real struggling artists: their travails, their poverty, their love lives, and the close bond of friendship that can develop between those thrown together in order to survive (The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical Rent was inspired by the same story). But, the unusual realism of La bohème is that, at one time early in their own lives, both Puccini and Murger were in a similar position. In fact, Murger based the characters on people he knew in his youth and he based our hero Rodolfo, a penniless poet, on himself. His frail and dying lover, Mimi, is based on a similar person Murger knew named Lucia. In her big first act introductory aria she sings: “They call me Mimi, but my name is Lucia.”
The story concerns four artists who share an unheated attic garret in Paris in about 1850. The opera opens on Christmas Eve with some dorm room horseplay among the four guys who eventually leave to party. The restless Rodolfo remains behind to write but a knock on the door changes his life. It is the upstairs neighbor, the consumptive Mimi, seeking a light for her candle which has gone out. Sparks fly and they go off to meet up with the others. Marcello has already met the love of his life, a wild girl named Musetta, and they fight throughout the opera. The two pairs of lovers alternate between passion and fury, commitment and estrangement. In the end, Mimi returns to Rodolfo to die in his arms, surrounded by their close-knit group of friends.
This really is a dream cast. As Mimi, South African soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza, has a glorious voice and natural acting chops that make her believable throughout. She over-depends on her chest voice, but even that is beautiful and controlled. On occasion, she was a hair under pitch on Friday. Jean François Borras is her equal, vocally and dramatically, as the impulsive Rodolfo. He possesses a real Italianate voice with ringing high notes that fill the opera house to the rafters. In the end, he displayed a remarkably beautiful pianissimo sound that would have served him well earlier in the opera.
One interesting sidelight is that in the first act, Mimi always has a candle that needs relighting and Rodolfo uses his candle to oblige. Actually, the proper translation of what she calls “Il Lume” is “the lamp.” Back then, candles were quite expensive and way beyond the financial abilities of the characters. Oil lamps were what was used and that is what Mimi says needs relighting, the lamp. However, my experience is that candles are always used in this scene.
Baritone Anthony Clark Evans, TDO’s Marcello, who is creating quite a stir in Operaland. His Met debut was only last season and he is booked solid for years. His is a virile baritone that could use a little more “ping” but projects as well as Borras’ brilliant vocal production. His flighty Musetta, soprano Sara Gartland, is also a singer on her way up, as she graduates from regional companies to big-time opera houses. Vocally, she is a lyric powerhouse. Dramatically, she commands the stage every time she is on it. Her antics in the second act as she tries to dump the rich old coot who is her current sugar daddy to return to Marcello’s arms is hysterical. There is a cute bit with her summoning spotlights from lighting designer Robert Wierzel’s arsenal as she prepares to sing her big aria.
By the way, that old coot was played to the hilt by a surprising singer to find in the role. It is none other than Samuel Ramey, one of the most famous bass-baritones in the world. Ever since his Met debut in 1984, he has dominated his repertoire in opera houses worldwide. He also plays the role of Benoit, the landlord who pesters the boys in the first act for their way overdue rent. In an interview, Ramey told me that he feels that it is time to retire from the monster roles, such as Verdi’s Don Carlo, but he enjoys staying in the game with less-vocally taxing comic roles, such as he sings here. He was marvelous both as a singer and actor and the ovation he received at the end of the show may have partly been a career tribute but it was an accolade Ramey earned anew on stage Friday night.
The other two members of the broke fraternity are Will Liverman as Schaunard and Nicholas Brownlee as the philosopher Colline. Both have voices as strong as the rest of the principals, and the pair were particularly funny in the last-act antics. The character of Colline made the most of his starring moment with his last act saying goodbye to his overcoat. He is going to pawn it for medicine to help the hopeless Mimi.
But the real star of the evening is the breathtaking sets and projections of Erhard Rom, and Peter J. Hall’s costumes. They are representationally realistic; creating the feel of the 1850s period. The projected street scenes of Paris at that time were wonderful. Tomer Zvulun‘s direction is complementarily realistic with many original and clever comic bits. Alexander Rom’s chorus is terrific, as usual, but in this opera the job is complicated by the extensive use of a children’s chorus in act two, guided by Meredith Wallace.
Conductor Giuliano Carella was a conundrum. He got some lovely sounds from the first-rate Dallas Opera Orchestra. He obviously knows the opera and understands Puccini’s style of rubato. But, his wild baton technique, consisting of big gestures pointing straight up in the air, often put him slightly ahead or behind the singers. He was not on top of the text.
That aside, this is a Bohème to be savored. It is a young cast, as the roles demand but so often are not, of strikingly wonderful singers with high dramatic abilities. It is a beautiful production that is not to be missed. Fortunately, there are a number of performances remaining.
This is an opera in four acts, but this excellent production combines acts one and two with only a short pause so there are only two intermissions. Since those acts are relatively short, it is not a long “sit” and shortens the running time of the show.