On Monday night – and, one might guess from the way the opera crowd gripped their collars as they swept into the Civic Opera House, the coldest night in Chicago this winter – a new La Bohème opened at the Lyric (it’s on loan from the San Francisco opera). It’s a straight production, meaning that those who need period costumes and a helping of gently falling snow with their Bohème will go home satisfied. But it also contains some moments of visual surprise and even marvel, giving hope to the possibility that those who want their opera “just as the composer intended it” and those who – well, want something else – can be sated in the same night.
Such a moment came halfway through the first act, for me the most stunning part of the night. The curtain rises on the young men’s poverty-chic Paris apartment (how romantic their suffering! How noble their icy fingers!), suspended at the center of the Civic’s proscenium arch. The space above, below, and to the sides of the apartment space are blocked off with boards painted with the windows of adjacent Parisian apartments. The elevation of the performance floor is a nice way to remind you that the action takes place on an upper floor; later in the act, there is a shouting match between Rodolfo at the top and his compatriots at the foot of the stairs – and of course Mimi will come up, looking for a light.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was telling you about the Parisian apartment that is surrounded by boarded-up murals, which emphasize the insignificance of the young men’s situation. There are thousands of failed artists and armchair philosophers like them littering the city, some no doubt unfolding their own drama of bread and heat behind painted windows. But of course Rodolfo is special, because Mimi enters his world (his apartment); and in this production, designed by Michael Yeargan and directed by Louisa Muller, when love is kindled in this threadbare room the walls open up, and the apartment floats against Paris’s dusk sky, breath and space suddenly blooming where there was only constriction a minute before. It’s a gorgeous moment.
The second act returns to the flatness of the Civic’s stage, but it’s campy and carnivalesque enough to stay interesting. Oh, about the singers: the young men are all quite fine, but the Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Colline is an indulgence to listen to. Easily twice as big as any other man’s voice on stage, his great bear organ is not always refined (though, when bidding farewell to his coat in the last act, a lyricism shines through the roughness) but you don’t want it to be. It galumphs through the notes, chewing them up as it goes, fleet and coarse and treacly thick. I could have listened to it all night. At the other extreme was Ana María Martínez’s Mimi, who produced an extremely limber and shaded line. Under her, the orchestra seemed heavy-footed and slow to respond – but perhaps any orchestra would have seemed so. It may be a dreaming to expect spontaneous, sensitive responsiveness from a hundred-headed beast, but that is the kind of musical dream that going to see La Bohème inspires, and that new Bohèmes always promise to deliver.