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Lyric’s ‘new’ production of ‘La boheme’ charming but ordinary

Rodolfo portrayed by Dimitri Pittas Mimi portrayed by AnMariMartinez during performance Puccini's LBoheme Civic OperHouse Chicago Ill. Friday January 18

Rodolfo, portrayed by Dimitri Pittas, and Mimi, portrayed by Ana Maria Martinez, during a performance of Puccini's La Boheme at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, January 18, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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‘La Boheme’


 Through Feb. 7;
second cast, March 9-28

 Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker

 Tickets, $34-$256

 (312) 322-2244;

Updated: February 24, 2013 6:27AM

It’s the fail-safe opera, one that requires no genius in the pit, no innovative direction, no great stars onstage. No matter how many times we’ve seen it, we know that in the last minutes of Puccini’s “La boheme,” as Mimi is about to die or as Rodolfo is shielded from her death, we’re going to cry and not much else that has happened is going to matter in retrospect.

So it was when “La boheme,” in a new production replacing Lyric’s relic from 1972, opened Monday night at the Civic Opera House. However, this staging is a 1996 import from San Francisco (when that company was using a Broadway-size theater during earthquake-proofing of its home). Michael Yeargan’s winning sets are “new” but still wholly traditional. What else is one supposed to do — what else should one do? — with “Boheme”?

In the pit, Lyric has a passionate and serious conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, who lets the score be as sentimental as it is, but not more so, and who brings out the genius of craftsmanship and tunefulness that have kept this work alive for almost 120 years.

The Metropolitan Opera staff director with a highly operatic-sounding name, Louisa Muller, animates Mark Lamos’ original concept and has a sense of how to make the performers playing these young bohemians actually seem like young bohemians. Let’s hope her unneeded fussiness in the last scene can be toned down or dropped altogether.

Lyric is offering a double cast. Mega-stars Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja take over the lead roles for six March performances. The supporting cast, which will remain the same, is charming and strong. And the leads for this January-February run have their merits.

As Mimi, soprano Ana Maria Martinez at first seems too mature for her part, but this could be due to Walter Mahoney’s period-true mid-19th-century costumes. Her voice and manner open up in Acts 3 and 4. Her “Donde lieta usci,” proposing that she and Rodolfo part without rancor, was very fine, and her death scene touching. In his Lyric debut, tenor Dimitri Pittas simply does not have the power, range or magnetism for Rodolfo’s solo numbers, but he is a caring partner as a singer and character.

Baritone Lucas Meacham is a natural Marcello vocally and theatrically. While local favorite Elizabeth Futral does not have the megaphone that Musetta’s vocal part requires, her stage performance is convincing throughout, and these two North Carolina natives make an excellent “second couple.”

Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli is luxury casting as the philosopher Colline in the quartet of young garrett-dwelling men. Ryan Center baritone Joseph Lim shows potential and a winning stage presence as Schaunard. Veteran Lyric character bass-baritone Dale Travis handles Benoit the landlord and Alcindoro, Musetta’s sugar daddy, with his customary insight.

Duane Schuler’s wholly atmospheric lighting, guest chorus master Ian Robertson (also of San Francisco), the Chicago Children’s Choir and their director Josephine Lee round out the pleasant cast. Mimi always proposed waiting for spring as her life philosophy. You’ll cry when she dies here. Perhaps some fireworks will be added to the production in March.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM.

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