REVIEW: Dallas Opera’s ‘La Boheme’

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‘La Boheme’ survived, and even thrived, with a last-second replacement. (Photo by Karen Almond for Dallas Opera)

The fourth opera in Dallas Opera’s season, Puccini’s timeless tale of tragic love La Boheme, is one of the most popular in the standard repertoire: There’s nary a singer out there who doesn’t know the score from heart. That’s a good thing, since before Wednesday night’s performance, lead tenor Bryan Hymel (who plays Rodolfo) had fallen ill and was replaced by Dimitri Pittas, who apparently arrived in Dallas from New York just hours before curtain.

If there was panic backstage, it wasn’t apparent from the seats of the Winspear, which presented an engaging performance overall.

The four-act opera revolves around four artists in Paris. Rodolfo, a poet, and painter Marcello (portrayed with passion and sensitivity by baritone Jonathan Beyer) struggle to stay warm in their freezing Paris apartment on Christmas Eve. They are joined by their friends, philosopher Colline (fine bass Alexander Vinogradov) and Schaunard (charmingly portrayed by baritone Steven LaBrie). Schaunard the musician has just returned from an odd but well-paying gig and has the cash to treat them to a night of fun.

Most leave for a festive dinner at Café Momus, but Rodolfo stays behind to finish his writing when he meets Mimi (soprano Ana Maria Martinez), a fragile neighbor whose candle has blown out. In classic operatic fashion, they fall instantly in love, yielding three of the most beautiful arias in Italian opera. But as we all know, the course of true love does not run smoothly.

Puccini’s music is iconic, but the weaker singer in the duo is Martinez. Her warbling voice distracted from the gorgeous “ Si. Mi chiamano Mimi,”  whereas Pittas’ “Che gelida manina” and “O soave fanciulla” are first-rate.

After Rodolfo and Mimi join the others at Café Momus, the group enjoys a fine meal until Marcello’s former love, the flamboyant Musetta (in a fine dress from the late costume designer Peter J. Hall), arrives on the scene with her rich older lover. Musetta (very strong DO debut from soprano Davinia Rodriguez) notices Marcello ignoring her, so she decides to serenade strangers about her beauty “Quando me’n vo” to get his attention. She succeeds, and they reunite.

In the beginning of the final act, the dark looming threat of Mimi’s demise is lifted up by a lively duel with breadsticks among the four friends.  Musetta then brings a very ill Mimi to the flat, and everyone scrambles to sell what they can to help pay for Mimi’s medical care. Colline shines in his farewell to his old coat “Vecchia zimarra, senti.” But this story does not end happily, and the slow final curtain adds to the drama.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza and director Peter Kazaras make competent, if not memorable, DO debuts (the stage work especially was listless). The lighting design by Thomas C. Hase was effective, particularly in the final act. It’s not their best work, but this revival of a Dallas Opera production still has the chops as a quintessential night at the opera.

Runs through March 29 at the Winspear Opera House with a simulcast at AT&T Stadium March 21.

— Alicia Chang

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Overtures: Notes on the classical scene

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April is crowed with classical music performances, with some terrific performances coming up. Of course, it kicks off Friday as Dallas Opera opens the first of two not-to-be missed productions at the Winspear: Turandot, Puccini’s final masterpiece (and the resting place of the most popular tenor aria ever, “Nessun Dorma”), which runs April 5, 10, 13 and 19 with matinees April 7 and 21. Running concurrently, Dominick Argento’s atmospheric mystery opera, The Aspern Papers — which the Dallas Opera premiered several decades ago — will feature superstar mezzo soprano Susan Graham. It plays evening performances April 12, 17 and 20, with matinees April 14 and 28.

Can’t make it to the Winspear for Turandot? The April 13 performance will be broadcast live at Cowboys Stadium … and tickets (and parking!) are free. Visit here to avoid the rush. You won’t wanna miss the warm-up act: The classic Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” will screen at 6:45 followed by the video of the opera’s boffo buffa about Julia Child, Bon Appétit!

Opera season continues with the Fort Worth Opera opening its summer festival at Bass Hall with four operas in repertory. Three are warhorses, with one (Glory Denied, about a Vietnam-era war hero) a regional premiere. The revivals include Puccini’s three-hanky, tuneful La Boheme opening April 20 with the brilliant Joe Illick in the pit, and Donizetti’s knee-slapper, The Daughter of the Regiment, with local favorite Ave Pine and superstar Joyce Castle in the cast opening April 27. Illick returns to conduct Richard Strauss’ sort-of comic opera Ariadne auf Naxos, starting May 4.

The Fort Worth Symphony under Miguel Harth-Bedoya continues its centennial season with a monster concert this weekend, starting with former composer-in-residence Kevin Puts’s Network, then launching into two Russian masterpieces: Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.

Chamber music fans get three pioneering concerts this month: The innovative Ahn Trio, which is made up of three sisters (Lucia on the piano, Angella on the violin, and Maria on the cello, pictured), brings their cutting edge music to the Winspear April 16; the equally intriguing Lawrence String Quartet plays at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium on April 26; and the same day, the outstanding Soundings series at the Nasher presents pianist Gilbert Kalish playing Ives’ monumental Concord Sonata.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Opera announces abbreviated 2012-13 season, another world premiere from Heggie

Last year, in a major cost-cutting initiative, the Dallas Opera trimmed its season from the planned five full-production operas (plus a chamber piece) down to four, one of which was scaled back to a concert version. The upcoming season looks even more spartan, with only three full-scale shows in 2012-13. But beyond that, there’s hope for some big things.

The so-called “Pursuit of Passion” season kicks off Oct. 26 with Verdi’s Aida, which will be directed by gay British composer John Copley. (I’ve been interviewing Copley for 10 years, and he always says he’s about to retire. So far, it hasn’t stuck… all the better for us. Aida will be followed in the spring with Puccini’s classic Turandot on April 6 and the return on April 12 of The Aspern Papers, which got its world premiere  25 years ago (in 1988) at the Dallas Opera.

But TDO isn’t just reminding us of its past premieres; it promises another in 2015 … once again from gay composer Jake Heggie.

Heggie, pictured — who composed Moby-Dick for its world premiere at the Winspear Opera House in the TDO’s inaugural season there — is teaming again with gay playwright and librettist Terrence McNally for the first time since Dead Man Walking. Great Scott will kick off its 2015-16 season. The rest of that season has not been announced.

The current season continues Feb. 16 with a concert version of Tristan und Isolde, followed by The Lighthouse, La Traviata and Die Dauberflote (The Magic Flute).

—  Arnold Wayne Jones