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If you have never experienced La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s opera about the lives of starving young artists living and loving in Paris in the 1840’s, this is an opportunity not to be missed. The story is gripping, the voices are beautiful, and the music is divine. Under the enlightened direction of general director James Allbritten, this magnificent production opens the 41st season of the Piedmont Opera.
Four gentlemen share an apartment in the Latin quarter of Paris, a poet, a painter, a music teacher and a philosopher. In a nearby garret lives a pretty young seamstress, Mimi, who embroiders flowers for a living. Poet and seamstress fall in love while the painter Marcello fumes about the affairs of his lost girlfriend, Musetta. The musician Schaunard shares his wages (earned playing music to a dying parrot) with his roommates, and all go out to celebrate Christmas Eve at the local Café Momus.
Yulia Lysenko siang the part of Mimi, whose actual name is Lucia, as she discloses to her neighbor, Rodolfo, in one of opera’s most famous arias, "Mi chiamano Mimi...." Lysenko has a beautiful voice, clear and powerful, with a delightfully fast vibrato. My first impression was of a voice untamed and intriguing, in the style of a Callas, but as the evening progressed, her expressivity and attention to musical detail proved thrilling. She is beautiful and a convincing victim of consumption which leads to her tragic death in the last act.
Her lover, the poet Rodolfo, was sung by tenor Adam Diegel, whose clear voice was well matched to Lysenko’s although less powerful in the upper register. His first act aria, "Che gelida manina," was superb, as was the duet with Mimi in the third act, during which the estranged lovers decide to reunite at least until the spring time.
Baritone Michael Redding was a stupendous Marcello, fitful, jealous, and funny. His rich, warm voice was filled with nuance and shading as befitted the mood of the music. His former sweetheart, the lovely but capricious Musetta, was sung by soprano Megan Cleaveland, whose antics as she tried to attract the attention of her old lover, Marcello, and get rid of her current sugar-daddy provided comedy in the second act, set on the street in front of the Café Momus.
Schaunard, the musician, was beautifully sung by Robert Balonek, whose acting was convincing and comedy hilarious. Colline the philosopher was sung by Richard Ollarsaba, whose touching last act farewell aria to his coat, which he pawns to raise money to buy medicine for the dying Mimi, brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Ollarsaba has a magnificent bass-baritone voice.
Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann sang two roles, the landlord Benoit, who comes to collect the rent in the first act but leaves humiliated, tipsy, and penniless, and Alcindoro, the second-act sugar-daddy of the coquettish Musetta.
The chorus was excellent in the second act street scene as well as in the opening of the third act, with special compliments to the children’s chorus for their singing and acting as they tried to persuade their mothers to buy toys from the street vendor, Parpignol. The Winston-Salem Symphony, in the pit, provided excellent orchestral accompaniment for the opera.
Some of the scenes, brilliantly staged by director Steven LaCosse, were marvelously acted by the four Bohemian roommates. In the last act, the mock fight/fandango, replete with salted herring and baguette, brought comic relief as the impending fate of Mimi weighed on our minds.
The bustling second act was convincing, although I found that the slapstick antics of Musetta detracted somewhat from her splendid waltz aria. I also found that the explicit telegraphing of Mimi’s death (falling hand, replaced by Schaunard, checking of pulse, and shaking of head) detracted from the pathos of the moment. I prefer to discover her death at the same time Rodolfo does.
La Bohème will be repeated in the Stevens Center on Sunday afternoon, October 28, and Tuesday evening, October 30. See the sidebar for details.