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Anna Netrebko tailors Mimi to her liking in second ‘La boheme’ cast

Joseph CallejAnnNetrebko lead second cast “Lboheme” Lyric Opera.  |  DAN REST~Lyric OperChicgo

Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko lead the second cast of “La boheme” at Lyric Opera. | DAN REST~Lyric Opera of Chicgo

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When: Through March 28

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $34-$259

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Updated: March 10, 2013 8:53PM

We see operas today as unities, and that is as it should be. The point of the art form, at least in live performance, is to combine music theater, singing, orchestral playing, stage design and concept into a total display and experience.

Yet with this, some would say, has come a decline in focus on “stars.” “Believability,” acting chops, directors’ interpretations, adventurous sets and costumes — these are all unnecessary. Intrusions, even — for this camp, little more than attempts to distract audiences from the declining number of “big” voices on the word’s opera stages.

The reopening Saturday night of Lyric Opera’s new-to-Chicago production of Puccini’s beloved “La boheme” with a second cast headed by one certified international star soprano and another powerful and increasingly popular European tenor brought these issues front and center.

Russian diva Anna Netrebko, 41, was making her belated Lyric and Chicago debut, almost 20 years after her first U.S. roles, in San Francisco, and a decade after her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where she has since become a fixture as she is in Salzburg and other major European music capitals. Her Mimi offers both sides of the big-name coin.

She is a presence, and her entrance into Rodolfo and Marcello’s artists’ garret drew old-school applause from some of her fans in the sold-out house before she sang a number. Her voice is big, very big, and her sound is rich, even luscious. Her acting can be serious and her decisions strong, including cutting much uncharacteristically silly business that director Louisa Muller had added to Mimi’s death scene the first time around. She sat in rapt attention as Rodolfo introduced himself to her and she delivered her own introductory aria, “Mi chiamano Mimi,” with both insight and passion.

Yet she also often sang with her odd characteristic of either uncertain pitch or intentional rewriting of notes and tempi to suit her idea of the role and performance. In Act Three’s two-couple quartet, she sang so to the rafters that this seemed to be “Der Meister Mimi.” And while it’s not her doing that her curvy frame never matches Walter Mahoney’s strictly-period mid-19th century costumes, her far from wan appearance even at her death scene came with fresh make-up and ringlets of black hair just so.

In only his second appearance at Lyric (he sang Alfredo opposite soprano Elizabeth Futral in the first cast of “La traviata” in fall 2007), Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, 35, definitely restored powerful and idiomatic singing to the character of Rodolfo. His take on the opening classic “Che gelida manina” was all one wants in this aria of bohemian self-description. His tight, fast vibrato gives an old-fashioned — good old-fashioned — quality to his singing. He matched Netrebko, an old friend and musical partner, in the famed Act One closing duet “O soave fanciulla” but kept his focus during the Act Three duet that might otherwise have become an inappropriate singing contest. Although both of these leads are “bigger” and older than Ana Maria Martinez and Dimitri Pittas, the first cast singers who better matched the age and stature of their characters, Calleja became a full member of the “gang” of young artists. And he justly earned the greatest curtain applause from the discriminating Lyric audience.

Everything else about the production, which opened initially in January, was tighter and stronger. Futral’s Musetta had the vocal oomph to match her outstanding chops this time. Baritone Lucas Meacham gets and delivers everything as the second leading man, Marcello. Ryan Center Korean baritone Joseph Lim has grown in voice and character to be a super Schaunard. The Chicago Children’s Choir members nailed their scene. When Italian low bass Andrea Silvestrelli (Colline) ran out to join the cast for his bow, you really felt that you were seeing the actual bohemians appearing on stage and not performers.

Emmanuel Villaume dug even deeper in the pit and impressed even more this round, even as he gave Netrebko’s various personal choices unfailing support. The French conductor believes that Puccini’s score is a serious as well as an entertaining masterpiece, and he and the Lyric Orchestra made their case fully.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.3).

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