Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is one of the most performed operas in the world for a reason -- romance among the young and beautiful in Paris is an attractive prospect to most, even if the romance is doomed. The simple story of love between the poor poet Rodolfo and the fragile seamstress Mimì is distinctive because it is told through some of the most beautiful music ever written and this production from Kentucky Opera, with Joseph Mechavich conducting the Louisville Orchestra, preserves all its soaring beauty, humor, and heartbreak.
While Kentucky Opera is unlikely ever to feature established opera superstars on its stage, there is something uniquely exciting about getting to see talented young artists at the outset of their careers. The four principles in this production are all singing their roles for the first time, landmarks in the repertoire and important to their continued development. You know, without a doubt, no one is slighting such a momentous opportunity, which adds its own dramatic frisson to the performances. My analogy for this cast, in a sports-crazy town, is to liken them to a stellar recruiting class, promising a championship further down the road.
Tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Rodolfo handled the first gorgeous aria, "Che Gelida Manina" with extraordinary poise and all the romantic "swoon" that marks it as a classic. He and soprano Corinne Winters as Mimì are well-matched, exhibiting a lovely chemistry as they make their first shy and stumbling introductions to one another through the songs. Mimi responds with "Sì, Mi Chiamano Mimì" and I quickly recognized her as my favorite type of soprano -- not bright and silvery, but dark and wine-soaked, full of little nuances and texture. Framing these lovers are Rodolfo's friends and roommates, including the moody Marcello (baritone Luis Orozco), continually tormented by his on-again, off-again mistress, the flirtatious Musetta. Soprano Emily Albrink brings delightful effervescence and attitude to her role, highlighted in the playful song, "Quando me'n vo'" (Musetta's Waltz).
Lovers quarrel, reconcile, and part, until the final, tragic scene of Mimi's return to Rodolfo, dying from her illness, but realizing the true love of her life and surrounded by loyal friends. Trying to ease her suffering as much as possible, Musetta goes with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy medicine; Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Schaunard and John Arnold as Colline tactfully leave the lovers alone for their final parting, but not before Arnold delivers a tender little ode to his old coat, which he is going to pawn for Mimi's sake. Arnold makes the most of this small moment in the finale, an immensely sad and deftly delivered aria.
Another nice thing about this well-designed production is that not only do the performers sing beautifully, they act their roles naturally, which isn't always the case. Again, I think Winters is the standout here, bringing a nicely modulated sweetness and quiet power to the role. I think the temptation is to make it very "showy," but she opts for more subtle hues, which makes the death scene more affecting.
There is one remaining show tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 and a few available tickets. Do yourself a favor and try to see this classic opera and its dynamic young cast, ably directed by David Roth.
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