There are certain experiences, certain accomplishments that, understandably, pop up on most people’s Bucket Lists, those to-do lists of what we’d all like to check off before we leave this life. Travel more. Dine at a Michelin restaurant. See a favorite artist perform.
If attending Opening Night of a new season at Chicago’s Lyric Opera is not already on that list, please take a moment to add it now. Such is the singular experience of dressing up to see and be seen in the theater’s opulent great hall followed by taking in the spectacle that is the marriage of gorgeous orchestration and remarkable vocal talents that only an opera can deliver.
One imagines, though fashions and access to such art have evolved over the years, it’s not too far from nights like the one in 1896 when a crowd turned out for the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic, moving La Bohème. More than a century later, this now essential work remains as striking as ever, here bolstered by impressive (if minimalistic) staging and a powerhouse cast, more than one of whom make their Lyric debuts (and we’re the better for it).
As I took my third row (!) seat just before the curtain rose, I was surprised to hear the opening notes of the national anthem begin from the pit just a few feet in front of me. Slowly, the packed theater rose to its collective feet to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” together; clearly I don’t go to the opera enough, as I didn’t realize that, like a Cubs game a few miles north, the Lyric’s season starts with this patriotic gesture. And I must say, it was quite a moment; perhaps it was the events of the last week, but there was something stirring about this group of strangers, connected only through our having tickets to the same event on the same night, standing up to acknowledge our shared patriotism (however it manifests in our politics).
But I digress…
La Bohème (here directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Domingo Hindoyan) is not a long opera; a story in four relatively short acts (the longest is just 35 minutes, delivered here two at a time with one intermission), Puccini wastes no time in dropping us into the lives of poor artists in 1830s Paris, quickly bringing us to love and care for them, to laugh and cry with them. Painter Marcello (Zachary Nelson, last seen in Turandot earlier this year) and his roommate, writer Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano, in a stunning Lyric debut), are freezing in their attic apartment in the Latin Quarter. It’s Christmas Eve, snow is softly falling outside (as it does throughout the production, an understated but beautiful touch), and Rodolfo suggests they burn the pages of his latest work in order to heat up the space. Soon, friends Colline (Adrian Sâmpetrean) and Schaunard (Ricardo José Rivera) arrive to lift their spirits with wine, dinner and an evening at their local watering hole, Café Momus. Rodolfo stays behind to finish a spot of work, and soon Mimì (an exceptional Maria Agresta, also previously in Lyric’s Turandot) is at his door, cold and exhausted, looking for a flame to light her only candle.
Such are the meet-cutes of late 19th century opera, as it were.
The two quickly proclaim their love for each other and, after two gorgeous solos (each receiving extended applause and shouts of “Bravo!” and “Brava!” respectively), venture out into the winter night to meet their friends and bask in their new affection for each other. There’s a bit of a hiccup in the production here as the set changes from the hefty, built-out attic apartment to towering hallway-like installations—the cafes and shops of the neighborhood—that one hopes will get sorted in future performances. Though it probably takes less than a minute, the transition feels like an eternity, clunky and ill-timed; the orchestra, players and the audience all sit awkwardly frozen before the proceedings can continue. It’s an unfortunate blip in an otherwise captivating production.
Once we’re back on track, our lovers find themselves in the thick of the holiday commotion, and here the Lyric does what it does best, filling its stage with dozens of actors and supporting players as an ensemble of both adults and the Chicago Children’s Choir bring mid-1800s Paris to life right there before us. Much is communicated in this moment, as the children and their keepers are decked out in vibrant colors and crisp designs; our main players appear mostly in drab grays, browns and black, no doubt a statement on their state of affairs as gay Paris swirls around them. (Sets and costumes here are the work of Stewart Laing, another Lyric debut.)
The exception, then, is the bold and brash Musette (Danielle de Niese in a wonderfully fearless performance), who arrives at the cafe like a tornado in a gorgeous red number and on the arm of a wealthy suitor, determined to make ex-lover Marcello green with envy. De Niese effortlessly owns the entire scene, bustling as it is; keep your eyes on her throughout and be rewarded with her delightful reactions and perfect comedic timing.
But La Bohème is not a comedy, after all, and after intermission, Puccini begins our slow march to the tragic end for lovers Rodolfo and Mimì. There’s jealousy and miscommunication, broken hearts and the enduring struggle just to get by, together and individually. By act IV, we’re back in that attic apartment as Rodolfo, Marcello and friends lament all that’s changed—and all that hasn’t. It’s clear that happily ever after is not in the cards for our lovers, and though it’s a harrowing final scene, Fabiano, Agresta and the others focus on the anguish in these troubled, complicated lives rather than allow this pivotal moment slip into melodrama.
Puccini’s classic marks the beginning of Lyric’s 64th season, and it’s a strong way to begin. With productions to come including Siegfried, La Traviata, West Side Story and more, there are plenty of opening nights to come. Though none may match La Bohème, at least in my book.
La Bohème runs select performances in October, and then again in January. Tickets start at $49 and are available here.
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