This past Saturday night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, opera superstars Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja successfully transformed an otherwise ordinary, four-star La Bohème at the Lyric into an extraordinary, five-star experience.

In this revival of Puccini’s tear-dripping opera favorite with its touching message of love’s priceless value, the Lyric decided to cast aside its veteran, time-tested 1972 production and turn to a fresh approach by loaning the San Francisco Opera’s 1996 production. Although I have reacted negatively to previous attempts at forfeiting traditionalism and was a bit leery after the Lyric’s jarring Hansel and Gretel, this production was fully traditional while yet equally fresh, thus easing my negative anticipation. Folks expecting drastic contemporizing – such as transferring the setting to the slums of 1930s Los Angeles or the surrealistic realm of Dimension X – will find disappointment, while those hungering for the signature moments of dingy Paris tenements, hustling Christmas merriment, a tinkling snowfall and heartbreaking yet tender portrayal of Mimì’s death will find contentment. Sets floated within each other like nesting boxes, suspended by sidings that were soon removed, while props – such as a large, mobile restaurant floor with frosted glass side panels – constantly popped up within scenes, thus avoiding the hassle of briskly changing sets during simultaneous indoor/outdoor scenes. Although not as lavish as I would have preferred, these traditional, realistic sets beautifully nodded towards the past while tastefully looking towards the future.

Joseph Calleja, Anna Netrebko © Dan Rest
Joseph Calleja, Anna Netrebko
© Dan Rest

With Netrebko and Calleja in the leads, casting also rose to an unbelievably high level. Many opera critics have hailed them as the ultimate dream couple, and undoubtedly, this is no understatement. Upon Netrebko’s thunderously greeted entrance and her utterance of the first note, I was totally transported from reality into musical bliss. While Netrebko’s voice was definitely heavier than that of the average lyric soprano, it was never overwhelmingly powerful or vibrato-laden, always learning towards the lighter side while fluidly riding on the breath. Equally outstanding proved Joseph Calleja’s gorgeously full voice – alarmingly reminiscent of that of the great genius Caruso – as that of the impoverished poet Rodolfo. Like Netrebko’s, Calleja’s voice was always fluid and never forced, combing with Netrebko’s for one mammoth yet celestial sound. Outside of the vivacious Verdi of Sondra Radvanovsky and Handelian brilliance of Lucy Crowe, I have never before beheld such earth-shattering singing at the Lyric. Meanwhile, the supporting cast of Elizabeth Futral as Musetta and Lucas Meachem as Marcello daintily painted brilliant finishing touches around the singing of the dynamic duo, while the cheeky youngsters of the Chicago Children’s Choir captivated my heart with their genuine zest and adorable begging for a tiny treasure during the Christmas festivities.

In the end, Netrebko and Calleja’s presence totally transformed what might have been an ordinary night at the opera into a totally unforgettable life experience. Even those fatigued by constant Bohème rehashing will find this collaboration irresistible, refreshing the opera from its often trite associations to its initial glory. For those bemoaning the passing of such opera giants as Pavarotti and the decline of the remaining older-generation superstars such as Domingo, this production successfully showcased the next generation of equally outstanding opera stars. Judging by their previous successes worldwide and this groundbreaking Chicago debut for Netrebko, this ideal “dream couple” is on an unstoppable path to the level of fame and eternal appeal of their predecessors.

*****