LA BOHÈMEby Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Dallas Opera’s Heights of Passion 2014-2015 Season
Conductor – Riccardo Frizza
Stage Director – Peter Kazaras
Production Designer – Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Costume Designer – Peter J. Hall
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Assistant Director – Ophelie Wolf
Wig and Makeup Designer – David Zimmerman
Chorus Master – Alexander Rom
Children’s Chorus Master – Melinda Cotton
Stage Manager – Bethany Ann Morales
Marcello – Jonathan Beyer
Rodolfo – Bryan Hymel
Colline – Alexander Vinogradov
Schaunard – Stephen LaBrie
Benoit and Alcindoro – Stefan Szkafarowsky
Mimi – Ana María Martínez
Prune Seller – Dan Crowell
Parpignol – Jay Gardner
Musetta – Davinia Rodriguez
Custom House Sergeant – Christopher Harrison
Custom House Guard – Brian Post
Reviewed Performance: 3/13/2015
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
One can insert projections and electronic sounds into an opera, but what finally sifts out in this genre is…do the singers and orchestra rock my soul? And for this production, I answered “yes.” They successfully transported me from sitting in the Winspear Opera House to the mid nineteenth-century Latin Quarter of Paris and a chilly garret apartment on the upper floor housing four struggling artists, the so-called Bohemians.
Having sung as a chorus member more than once in this opera I’ve seen the front and back side of it. I thought for sure my suspension of disbelief would have worn out its elasticity, and surely I could not be brought to tears, but I was wrong. They took me out. Break out the tissues, pale Mimi’s coughing and handsome Rodolfo’s crying. Poor things! Wah!
This production didn't incorporate modern innovations but was effective merely by utilizing the enchanting artistry of Giacomo Puccini to the fullest extent of the…heart. This is not to say I don’t admire the excellent, cutting-edge work The Dallas Opera has already presented in their “Heights of Passion” season, with the chilling Everest and last season’s electrifying Death and the Powers, but I found their return to this warhorse Puccini opera quite satisfying - like savoring a bite of my mom’s warm apple pie with a flaky crust and no need for a dollop of whip cream or ice cream to please my taste buds.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza led his orchestra well in Puccini’s grand, sweeping, harmonic textures and masterly orchestrations that have wooed audiences since the work debuted in 1896. Under Frizza’s direction the orchestra supported the singers with splendid music, never covering their sound—bravo! In general, the principals did lovely justice to the natural beauty of the melodies, but overall I wished for a bit more projection as their volume was not quite full enough. Perhaps the seat I had was a dead place, as every hall has one, but I heard others remark similarly that evening.
The special effects were limited to the gentle snow which appeared to be large rectangular chunks of paper floating down. However, those choppy snowflakes gleamed with the gentle lighting designed by Thomas C. Hase. He also created shadows that gave new life to the gray set used in past productions. The stark lighting on Mimi, as she hid behind a dark tree, symbolically brought together her impending death—the illumination caused the snow-covered black branches and her pale face to glow simultaneously.
The lighting, set, costumes and, of course, the singing, all wove together in a way that managed to bring many audience members to tears. I heard the waterworks choked back throughout the house during many touching scenes, especially in the final sad moment when Mimi’s deterioration played out. As many times as I’ve witnessed this scene, I find it curious that I still always ache for a miracle—couldn’t Mimi recover just this once?
The Dallas Opera knows and obviously loves to produce this touching opera, having done so eight times. The first was in 1961 and the most recent, prior to this season, in 2008. The company knows a hit and one that draws, but perhaps more importantly we, the Dallas/Fort Worth audience, adore this work and rush to see it every time it comes around. Why? The universal story, based on Henri Mürger’s autobiographical novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, portrays young poverty-stricken artists dedicated to their crafts of music, philosophy, art and writing, but have not yet made it to the big time. This is a tale that many relate to, whether they’ve already made it to the level of silicone, big hair and designer boots, or are still struggling to achieve financial and societal success. The mark of an opera that withstands time is that it hits hard, grabs the soul, has memorable melodies, and makes the audience surrender to its passion. Call me a hopeless romantic, but in this day and age of rare live performances and face to face interaction, I embrace a good cry over fervent young love. The Dallas Opera should have given out a tissue packet with each program. The familiar set backdrop by Production Designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was a silver gray wash, with various store names faintly printed on mildly textured buildings—a nonintrusive and solid background. The six-foot center-stage platform served up the main action on a pedestal that surely helped even those in the house’s upper seats enjoy the apartment scenes more.
The colorful attire of the approximately eighty singers, including chorus, created by Costume Designer Peter J. Hall aptly represented both the poor and well to do Parisians of the era. Men touted debonair scarves, long wool overcoats and top hats, and the women strutted in lovely, flowing dresses and frilly bonnets. The milkmaid toted milk jugs on a shoulder bar with a cheerful “Hoopla!” The rich and the raggedy children both added exuberant moments as they disobeyed their mothers and clamored for toys sold by Parpignol, strongly sung by tenor Jay Gardner. The wealthy purchased fruit from the wily prune seller, sung coyly by veteran company tenor Dan Crowell.
Overall, the chorus created a massive boisterous crowd of street people, students, work-girls, shopkeepers, street vendors, soldiers, waiters, and children that populated the stage and admirably performed their sections. I would have liked to see more interesting staging of the crowd scenes as placing eighty singers on stage requires more than lining them up in a large continuous stream. This dull arrangement often occurred during the big street scenes. The stage size doesn’t accommodate that large of a chorus without crafty staging, which was lacking. Still, the sound of the plentiful chorus voices was glorious, tight, clean and delightful. My praises go to chorus master Alexander Rom and children’s chorus master Melinda Cotton! The marching band parade was also simply jubilant.
Of course, the most famous aria known by every soprano worth her smelling salts is Musetta’s sensual waltz, “Quando m’en vò,” sung with a solidly seductive tone by soprano Davinia Rodriguez. She maneuvered her way through the piece with the expected sauntering about Café Momus while wearing a striking orange satin gown with pink flowers and a blue sash. Stage Director Peter Kazaras added a naughty touch by having her “old man” perform a move reminiscent of a groom retrieving his bride’s garter. The crude deed was accomplished by the more-than-willing, stodgy, rich Alcindoro, sung by bass Stefan Szkafarowsky. He also played the landlord Benoit, proving he could successfully play two different old fools that both get duped in one opera.
Another much younger bass who wowed me with his performance of the famous coat aria was Alexander Vinogradov who sang the role of Colline, the philosopher. The placement of this aria in the final act, busting out of the death scene, always seems so unusual. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Vinogradov’s performance of the sad aria, “Vecchia zimarra” when, in richly dark tones, he says goodbye to his old coat he needs to sell to purchase medicine for Mimi.
The shining star in this production was undoubtedly soprano Ana María Martínez. As the delicate yet feisty Mimi, Martinez’ soothing tone floated through the long delicate phrases of “Donde lieta” and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì.” She held each of the four high A’s in the latter aria to a perfect length. Throughout the opera Martínez created a Mimi with both sweets tones and a spicy tenacity that brought a little something more than the “Miss-congeniality” role of the delicate seamstress who embroiders flowers on linens. We do pity frail Mimi but also see that she's a fighter who puts on a strong front to spare others. Martìnez’ chemistry with tenor Bryan Hymel as her dear poet Rodolfo was sweet to behold. Hymel sailed through his role with genuine dramatic acting and a clear touching voice. I used up my last tissue as he clutched his limp Mimi.
Baritones Jonathan Beyer as Marcello and Steven LaBrie as Schaunard interacted well and brought humorous and virile strength to their roles. The four artists played off of each other with ease and natural humor and skillfully handled both the raucous moments of them burning manuscripts for heat to woefully selling their treasures to help poor Mimi.
If you are looking for an evening of dreamy amorous music to enjoy with your loved one, this is your date night, and it would be a shame if you didn't take advantage of a chance to caress some pure, musical, Puccini poetry.
Dallas Opera’s “Heights of Passion” 2014-2015 Season
Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street
Dallas, TX 75201
Remaining performances are March 18th, 21st, and 27th at 7:30 pm, and March 29th matinee at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $19.00 to $275.00 and flex subscriptions start at $75.00.
For tickets and information, call 214-443-1000 or visit www.dallasopera.org.