By Giacomo Puccini
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director, Renata Scotto
A review of the performance on Nov. 21, 2007
If the amount of sniffling throughout the house in the last five minutes is any measure, this performance of Puccini's La Bohème moved more than a few people. It avoided the slushy sentimentality in which an opera company can easily mire itself when overzealous singers try to force the emotion out as if they were squeezing a raw potato; they get something out of it, of course, but nothing more than mush. Last night, however, Lyric Opera of Chicago balanced itself beautifully on the razor-thin line between poignancy and mawkishness as the performers gently but irresistibly drew their audience into a love story that, despite being simple and predictable, can become very touching when sincerity is what gives flight to the music.
To a degree, opera is exempt from the demands of realism because it doesn't claim to be wholly realistic, at least as far as love is concerned. On the contrary, it demands both the partial suspension of cynicism and the acceptance of some emotional extravagance, even when the story is as improbable as that of two strangers who, within three minutes of meeting each other for the first time, fall in love and pledge eternal faithfulness. But there has to be just enough residual believability for us to acknowledge the story's possibility, even if remote. And that believability comes from sincerity, which Lyric delivered in abundance.
The two finest voices in the cast were not those of the leads, Mimi and Rodolfo. Nicole Cabell, who played Musetta, sang with a voice that was clean, clear, and solid, with a vibrato very pleasing in both speed and width. She was true, moreover, to her own words about Musetta's waltz, that one has to "sing an elegant line". In the role of Colline, Andrea Silvestrelli's basso was strong and rich, carrying just as well at the bottom of his range as at the top. I regret not hearing him in the role of Sparafucile in Lyric's production of Rigoletto two years ago.
The contrast was stark, however, between Cabell and Serena Farnocchia, who sang Mimi. Farnocchia's voice was not to my taste; to be fair, though, it may not have been up to its usual quality, given her reported successes in other productions of this opera. Nevertheless, her voice last night was breathy and thin, especially in the upper register, with a vibrato too fast to keep the pitch stable. Her voice faltered in the closing duet with Rodolfo in Act I, and it failed to complement Cabell's in Act II. Because Mimi rarely sings in the range where a soprano can show effulgence, great skill is required to make the role glow. Although she did give us a genuinely sweet and sympathetic Mimi, she did so largely through her stage presence.
Jones' tenor was light and usually bright, penetrating at the top but weak at the bottom. Sometimes transitions between registers were awkward, but when Rodolfo was in brilliance range, Jones was equal to the challenge and his sound was superb.
In the scene at the Latin Quarter, the chorus and orchestra were out of synchrony several times, once or twice as far apart as a full beat. And when we first heard the off-stage drums, they seemed to be ignoring the conductor's rhythm. These were clumsy mistakes that should not have happened in an opera company of Lyric's stature.
Pier Luigi Pizzi's sets were interesting; exaggeration of their third dimension gave them an air of surrealism. The garret, in fact, reminded me of van Gogh's The Bedroom because of their similar receding perspectives.
There was loveability among these bohemians, along with selfishness, admirability, impetuosity, silliness, and sobriety. Flaws in the performance notwithstanding, the ensemble gave us characters who, within the boundaries of operatic overstatement, were authentic.
The death scene was particularly well-thought-out. Together, the music, singers, orchestra, and stage lights gradually narrowed the audience's focus onto Rodolfo and Mimi, through the climactic pause – which seemed ever so slightly longer than it commonly is – and into the sudden cry of the horns, wail of the strings, and crash of the cymbals at the moment he realizes she's dead. The steady metamorphosis of this final scene from hopefulness to resignation was so smooth that the audience couldn't but be pulled along with it. Nicely done.