“Poetry and again poetry – tenderness mixed with pain; sensuality, a drama surprising and burning, and a rocketing finale.” This is composer Giacomo Puccini describing one of the world’s most famous operas, La bohème. Puccini’s opera presents both directors and opera singers with a serious artistic challenge, and La bohème calls for a lot more than attractive sets, flattering costumes and pleasant voices. To be a true success, the production of this opera requires first-tier vocalism and most convincing acting.

On my way to Baltimore Lyric last Friday night I was hoping that the season’s opening production of La bohème, directed by Bernard Uzan, would feature a cast of skillful, highly trained singers. Even though it had become customary for the recently re-opened Lyric to treat its audience to “young” opera productions, putting the fate of a Puccini production in the hands of less-experienced artists seemed a risky thing to do. Therefore, when in his opening speech, the Lyric’s artistic director James Harp announced that La bohème would be performed by “a fresh young cast of singers”, I had my doubts; unfortunately, not entirely without reason.

No doubt, the production had its beauties. The compelling sets designed by Peter Dean Beck, much in the spirit of the opera’s 1896 Turin première, instantly won the audience over. The shabby garret in Act I and the snow-covered outskirts of Paris in Act III earned rounds of applause. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven White, known for his deep, thorough treatment of Puccini’s music, was in fine form and performed with precision and utmost passion.

It was primarily on the vocal front that the production failed to impress most. Timothy Mix’s Marcello sounded flat and was hardly audible in his Act IV duet with Rodolfo, “O Mimì, tu più non torni”. Colline’s showcase aria “Vecchia zimarra” was sung by Christopher Job quite monotonously and lacked vocal security. Even though the prima donna of the night, Anna Samuil, boasted elegant phrasing in her Act I aria “Si, mi chiamano Mimì”, her interpretation of Mimì could use more tonal variety as well as emotional depth, essential for portraying Puccinian heroines.

Yet, there was one voice who triumphed: Rodolfo, masterfully portrayed by young Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev. Using his enormous vocal range and rich tonal spectrum, Vasiliev portrayed the young penniless poet at different stages of his character development, thus allowing the audience to witness his vocal and dramatic evolution. Having given a light, almost bel canto coloring to his “Che gelida manina” in the very beginning of the opera, the tenor gradually descended into the dark world of Puccinian tonality, as he painted Rodolfo’s transformation from a careless youth in Act I into a mature, grief-stricken man in Act IV. The most striking and emotionally intense moment of the night was Rodolfo’s final cry “Mimì!” over the dead body of his beloved. Ringing with genuine pain and despair, Vasiliev’s voice soared against the backdrop of the orchestra, bringing the opera to its tragic finale and leaving the audience quite shaken by the experience that we all became part of.

I left the Lyric feeling grateful for a chance to have seen this unusual production of La bohème. Somehow a few technical imperfections that bothered me earlier no longer seemed significant, but what did matter was the lasting impression that the production had left in more than one heart, by large thanks to the performance of a truly consuming young artist.