By Ian Rigg
“I stay all alone
there in a white room
and look upon the roofs and the sky
but when the thaw comes
The first sun, like my
first kiss, is mine.”
In the end, the only love thing we can own is love. Everything else is just rented.
So alleges the musical Rent, and so too does the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s revival of the opera upon which that musical was based, La bohème. In Director Richard Jones’ vision of Composer Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini’s seminal work, the pomp is peeled away to reveal the agony and ardor of its operatic heart.
The characters of La Boheme are downtrodden artists marked by a hunger: not only for survival, but for love. In their cruel world, meager possessions must be traded for medicine. Pages of poetry must be burned for warmth. Jones wisely builds a humanistic approach, then executes it with minimalism, stage portraits, and emphasis. By withholding artifice, the humanity is even more overflowing in comparison. By sparingly painting with bleakness, the touches of tenderness cut like knives.
Stewart Laing, both set and costume designer, is a genius, working perfectly in tandem with Jones to conjure the vision. His impressive but streamlined sets are wisely scarce: they are but white rooms. The people and objects within bring them life.
The show begins with two friends in a white box, reflecting the sparsity of their lives. Our characters are confined from the cold, in a coffin they can’t even afford the rent for. But ever so briefly, their lives break from their tenement tomb to become spectacle. It’s a testament to Lyric’s eye for boldness (and for budget), that the best setpieces, three lavish shops on Christmas Eve (replete with window displays, glass ceilings, and masterfully crafted forced perspective), are onstage for perhaps seven minutes. So too comes the surge of costumes, a chorus of crimsons and emeralds and cobalts and any pigment and fabric one could attach to luxury. They’re quite a contrast to the leads’ tattered and drab bohemian garb, done up in browns and grays and blacks.
The intelligent work is doubled by brilliant Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin who renders the masterful tableau with long-starved warmth in Acts one and two, and a comparatively bleak night and stale daylight in Acts three and four that lends a pallid tone to the once-white sets before intermission. But her brightest achievement is the pane of moonlight that strikes through the bohemian skylight.
The other sources of illumination are the passionate performances. Zachary Nelson’s Marcello exudes charisma and jealousy with a rich baritone. It’s a joy to watch him spar with Danielle de Niese’s Musetta, one of the show’s killer apps. She is fire and side-splitting scorn, with an underlying sweetness that makes her a true heartbreaker.
Michael Fabiano aches with a lovelorn fervor. As Rodolfo, the tenor towers as a tremulous and tormented poet in poverty, tragically starved of peace of mind. Maria Agresta is the definitive article as Mimi, creating a powerful portrait of the seamstress stricken by illness and love’s slings and arrows. There isn’t a heart alive who could hear the soprano’s touching arias, and stay cold in the end.
Colored all the more by a world-class orchestra conducted by Domingo Hindoyan, La bohème at the Lyric depicts a world of disparity, between the rich and the poor, and between the loved and the loveless.
The revitalized requiem is a reminder of the possessions that we’ve rented, and the love that we own, and prompts us to clutch it tight. For within the lush opera house, the work is lavishly lugubrious in an idyllically lit space. Outside the theatre, the days grow darker sooner and sooner, and beggars implore for change.
REVIEWER’S ADDITIONAL NOTE:
The tale of art among economic inequality comes to an ironic halt as the Lyric Orchestra goes on strike for fair compensation. Negotiations are ongoing, and for the sake of operatic endeavor and artistic integrity, for the sake of music, may it reach a swift a solution.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “La bohème” through January 25, 2019 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and details are available here.