Opera in four acts
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger
Première: Teatro Regio, Turin, 1 February 1896, conducted by Arturo Toscanini
New-to-Chicago production. Owned by the San Francisco Opera Association.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, IL
March 9, 2013
Mimì: Anna Netrebko
Rodolfo: Joseph Calleja
Musetta: Elizabeth Futral††
Marcello: Lucas Meachem
Colline: Andrea Silvestrelli
Schaunard: Joseph Lim†
Benoit/Alcindoro: Dale Travis
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume Original
Production: Mark Lamos
Director: Louisa Muller*
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Walter Mahoney*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Guest Chorus Master: Ian Robertson
†current member, Ryan Opera Center
†† alumnus/ alumna, Ryan Opera Center
This review, written by Yige Li, is for the Lyric Opera of Chicago performance of March 9, 2013, at the Civic Opera House, in Chicago, IL.
Every season, Lyric Opera of Chicago would have one popular opera double-casted with an extended run of more than ten performances in all. And this season, it is La Boheme. The January-February run had Ana María Martínez as Mimi and Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo in his Lyric debut. But much focus is on the March run, unsurprisingly, with Anna Netrebko's highly-anticipated Lyric debut in the role of Mimi, and a great partner no other than Joseph Calleja as her Rodolfo. I went to performances with both casts.
The production is a new-to-Chicago one, owned by the San Francisco Opera Association. This may be interesting for long-time Lyric subscribers who had experiences on their old productions for several runs, for me, who just came to Chicago before this season, it's just another traditional production.
I have nothing against traditional setting, but this is not really an extraordinary one. The garret in first and fourth acts is very small. In act two, having Cafe Momus indoor onstage separates the stage into two parts--the street on the left and the cafe on the right. The stage of toll gate at the Barrière d'Enfer in act three is simply flat. With all these, it leaves very few space for singers having a more interesting and efficient blocking. What's worse is Louisa Muller's direction showing she's either lacking of talent or being lazy. Sometimes, she made singers simply park and bark (especially the chorus blocking in act two), and other times, she made singers doing too much when the music clearly suggesting a kind of silence.
In the pit, the orchestra led by French conductor Emmanuel Villaume played very beautifully. Though sometimes, the orchestra is little slow and singers were slightly ahead of them, it's acceptable in a live performance considering the singers could not really hear the orchestra clearly onstage. Personally I felt the orchestra is bit too elegant for Puccini's music, but it could just be my personal taste.
On stage the chorus is directed by guest chorus master, Ian Robertson, from San Francisco. Though the blocking part was quite boring as mentioned before, the singing part was great. Schaunard was sung by Joseph Lim, a current member of Ryan Opera Center (the young artist development program of Lyric Opera). The voice is young and very beautiful, but the size is not big. From my seat in the middle of orchestra level, his voice could be heard clearly, but I'm not sure it would be the same at upper balcony, and I'm almost certain it could not project well to the family circle if it's in MET. Colline was sung by Andrea Silvestrelli, an old, big, and not so beautiful voice, quite the opposite to our Schaunard hear. For me, he's not a great fit to the role. By the way, he's also doing Sparafucile in Rigoletto in Lyric now. I haven't had a chance to catch one yet. But I feel that role may suit his voice better. Lucas Meachem was Marcello who has a beautiful and emotional voice. Though some his acting was stiff, I would have the director taking the "credit", as not every opera singer is a nature actor/actress, and that's why we need a revival director being there to HELP SINGERS. And for soprano Elizabeth Futral who sings Musetta... She seems in a good shape, but sorry I really don't remember. Knowing Anna Netrebko played Musetta in this exact production back in 2004 in San Francisco, all I was thinking was how great it must be having Anya on stage for this part. Well, I could be forgiven for I'm really not having a career as being music critic, right?
OK, finally, we come to the best part, the glamorous loving pair, Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, as Mimi and Rodolfo. An opera house as Lyric could not afford an all-star cast as MET do (i.e. Having a star like James Morris singing a minor role as Lodovico in Otello, my goodness!), but sometimes still could assemble a dreaming cast for leading roles, like this. Anna and Joseph know each other well enough, and they actually did La Boheme together in Munich back in 2009. The chemistry between them burned so obvious one simply could not ignore it.
Joseph has such a gorgeous voice and very very traditional! If you love to listen to old recordings from early 20th century as I do, you would fall in love with this voice in seconds. This voice alone could make the whole performance shining! The only minor fault he had was in act four when Rodolfo and Mimi were left alone, after hearing Mimi saying he's the love of her life, he sung "Ah! Mimi---" rather than "Ah! Mi-mi--".To my ear, it seems that he was a little bit emotionally out of control when singing the line, but who could blame him on this?
And, we have more! For the part of Anna, it's all you can imagine and all you could not. That's quite ridiculous for Lyric, a company with rich history and having hosted many great singers American debut including La Callas, having Anya this late, after almost 20 years of her American debut, more than 10 years of her MET debut, when she has already opened two consequent MET season and has scheduled for the third. One could feel the eagerness from audience when they applauded for her entrance.
She gave a very three-dimensional approaching to the character, shy, sensitive, with a little childish curiosity. Her mezzo voce is better every time I listened to her live from last year. What dreaming quality she had in this mezzo voce! And her using of mezzo voce was never a showcase but an essential need for drama. Yes, Anna's voice was not perfect with all her usually shortage, but with a voice being able to develop such emotional expression onstage, who would care those minor shortages?
And for the acting part, with the experience in January, I feel safe to say, it's her alone saved the show from all the silliness of the production and the director. Though we have some singers who can both sing and act nowadays, Anna is among the very few of them not only can act but could sensitively respond to the different atmosphere of different productions. In the Salzburg production last summer which I watched on DVD, she showed a sense of coldness and isolation in the beginning, and developed warmness from the coldness in the end. But in this purely traditional production, she only showed the coldness and fearfulness in the beginning of act three, but having the warmness from the very beginning. Overall she's a shyer and quieter girl (but not flat and boring) compared to the more open one in the modernized Salzburg production. And I must admit the more I observe her acting, the more I admire the way it combines with music. She was not only moving but moving with the music.
In "Mi chiamano Mimi", it's quite an experience seeing how she singing upstage (without losing any sound quality) then turning around slowly at "ma quando vien lo sgelo il primo sole e mio".
In act three, when Mimi was watching Rodolfo and Marcello's talk, the director gave a silly direction having her leaving from where she hided on the stage left and going to hide at stage right. From the experience in January, it's really a distraction seeing Mimi's rushing across the stage at back when Rodolfo was slowly and emotionally describing her illness. I thought Anna may drop this part. Though she didn't, she paced her moving slowly, along with the music, sentence by sentence. One could see Mimi's struggling between hiding as soon as possible and desire of hearing clearly of Rodolfo's words. Though I still feel it a little distraction when watching this, worrying Rodolfo would see her immediately if he had turned around, what Anna did may be the best result she could get being confined in this blocking.
In act four, during the orchestral music before "Sono andati?", she boldly chose to get up from her bed, instead of hurry rushing to Rodolfo, she stared at the bed, going backwards slowly with every step on the beat, showing the conscious of Mimi knowing that's where she would have her final moment, and trying to remember all this and to bring it to her death. I could give much more examples, but it's really something people couldn't fully appreciate until they go and watch and think by themselves.
In the end, when the music stopped, standing ovations came in seconds after, not the usually applause before the music ends. Though short, this kind of silence was rare, and showed how emotionally taken this shown was.