It is impossible to not fall under the spell of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “La Boheme” at the Civic Opera House.
Puccini’s masterpiece is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, and this exquisite retelling of a tender, doomed love story in mid-19th century Paris is graced with fine voices, sturdy sets and an orchestra in the pit that is as dramatic as the singers on stage.
The fragile heroine Mimi is sung by Puerto Rico-born soprano Ana Maria Martinez, whose silvery voice can reach the rafters of the vast opera house, but can also produce the faintest filament of sound. Less effective is her lover, the starving poet Rudolfo, sung by American tenor Dimitri Pittas. Still, he wins our heart in the first act, when he slips Mimi’s lost key into his pocket and blows out his candle so they can remain in the dark together just a little longer.
Flirty Musetta is sing by popular American soprano Elizabeth Futral, an alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. American baritone Lucas Meachen sings her off-and-on lover Marcello, Rodolfo’s roommate in a chilly Parisian garret.
All four of these artists are fine actors, the result of a concentration in opera world in the last 40-plus years on developing dramatic skills along with vocal ability in promising young singers.
The production is owned by the San Francisco Opera Association and the sets are suitably evocative. The garret is especially small, set as a box in the middle of the stage. I’m sure that is to show the cramped living quarters of the penniless bohemians, but it seems needlessly restrictive.
Director Louisa Muller in her Lyric directorial debut uses the full stage for the Christmas Eve scene in the Latin Quarter. The place bustles with life, reminiscent of the atmosphere in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on that same night.
French conductor Emmanuel Villaume leads the orchestra skillfully through some of the most beautiful music ever written.
This is an enchanting production. The trials of young love are legion and dear Mimi does die. But the tale will warm your heart and that’s just the tonic for our current below-zero wind chill.
“La Boheme” runs at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through March 28. Pittas and Martinez sing Rudolfo and Mimi in the January and February performances, with Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko singing the roles in March. For information, visit their website.