As the curtain opens at the Dallas Opera, behind it are glimpses of the city of lights of a century ago complete with shop-fronts stenciled with French appellations and Parisian apartments whose residents are visible in their second-floor windows. Scenic designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has created a vivid world that invites us into another time and place, one where we can fantasize of love's power to warm the coldest hand and conquer the vilest illness. This is Pucciniʼs romantic masterpiece, La Boheme.
The Winspear Opera house crackled with energy last Friday evening awaiting the Dallas Opera debut of celebrated conductor Riccardo Frizza. Frizza exceeded all expectations with his perceptive direction of the orchestra, enabling the audience to experience a range of emotions from laughter to tears.
Act I reveals a bleak garret on the upper floor of a Latin quarter apartment building in Paris where the poet Rodolfo, tenor Bryan Hymel, is forced to burn his manuscript on Christmas eve to warm himself and his painter companion Marcello, baritone Jonathan Beyer. The two are soon joined by the charismatic baritone Steven LaBrie as Schaurnard (whose voice was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra in this first act), and bass Alexander Vinogradov as Colline. They come bearing gifts of food, firewood, wine and money and now our quartet of struggling artists is complete.
What story of poverty would be complete without a landlord who comes to collect rent from his penniless tenants? Stefan Szkafarowsky evokes laughter as the landlord, Benoit. He arrives and the quartet plies him with wine and coaxes him into sharing stories about his extramarital activity. Thin women are a nuisance, he complains, while describing himself as old but sturdy. In this case the lighter side of Puccini is enhanced by the super-titles.
A light-hearted beginning soon gives way to the tragic nature of the story when the frail, sickly and nearly frozen neighbor Mimi knocks at the door asking Rodolfo to light her candle. Mimi, is portrayed by soprano Ana María Martínez, whose beauty and presence light up the stage. Her voice, both powerful and tender, and her superb acting skills perfectly capture Mimi. It is no wonder that Rodolfo desires to warm the hands of this fragile flower-maker and Hymel expresses this with both power and sensitivity in the aria, "Che gelida manina." This aria reveals the poetry of Puccini with these words, "I live in my carefree poverty, I squander rhymes and love songs like a lord. When it comes to dreams and visions and castles in the air, I've the soul of a millionaire. From time to time two thieves, two beautiful eyes steal all the jewels out of my safe."
In Act II, set-designer Ponnelle reveals an entire Parisian street with a lively Christmas Eve celebration complete with snow, a lively and adorable childrenʼs chorus, a friendly dancing bear and Jay Gardner as a slightly creepy Parpignol. This act also introduces us to soprano Davinia Rodriguez, who is versatile in the role of Musetta, portraying her as shallow at times, but also tenderhearted in her concern for Mimi. Rodriguezʼs voice never falters even when her dinner date ends up under her dress.
Winter continues in Act III revealing the bittersweet quality of Mimi and Rodolfoʼs love. They agree that winter is no time to be alone and they will part in spring when the flowers blossom. Their duet, "Addio senz rancor" also highlights the talent of Martínez and Hymel as their voices linger in the air like an omen for their future Frizza's skill was on display as the tone and flow of the orchestra balanced the tempestuous relationship of Marcello and Musetta in counterpoint to that of Mimi and Rodolfo. Frizza evokes the bittersweet and eternal nature of Rodolfo's and Mimiʼs love one moment and in the next we return our attention to the temporal nature of the affection of Marcello and Mimi.
Lighting designer Thomas Hase silently reveals the change in season for Act IV. The sun is shining in the garret of the struggling artists and the quartet engages in horseplay and banter which degenerate into a food-fight. The fun is not to last as Musetta arrives with the dying Mimi. The overwhelming sorrow permeating the garret is expressed beautifully by Vinogradov; his final "adieuʼ of the aria "Vecchia zimarra, senti" was a highlight. The lovers, Rodolfo the poet and Mimi his poetry, say their goodbyes as Mimi drifts away and the curtain closes.
La Boheme is a simple but timeless story with a familiar ending. When presented true to its historical traditions, it retains the beauty and emotion which have made it a favorite since its premiere in 1896. The Dallas Operaʼs production allows us to be swept away by Pucciniʼs melodies and transported by his poetry.
La Boheme is in performance at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29. Tickets start at $19.
For the Saturday, March 21 performance, the Dallas Opera hosts a free live simulcast at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington. There will be free parking. Doors open at 6 p.m. with a pre-show and activities until the performance begins at 7:30 p.m.
More information at dallasopera.org.