I have complicated feelings about Puccini. He’s one of the great composers of soaring operatic arias in the late 19th/early 20th century: “Nessun dorma” from Turandot; “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly; “Musetta’s waltz” from La Boheme, among others, are essentials in the canon (and the rest of his music is pretty good, too). His proficiency has made his music (and, accordingly, the operas they contain) wildly popular. But the librettos of his operas, almost without exception, are sentimental (and sometimes uncomfortably regressive) tripe. Puccini is who I think of when I picture duets where a soprano and tenor sing lyrics like “Your love is magic in my heart that makes me fly with angels, I adore you, my glorious flower” and such nonsense that wouldn’t typically make it past a first draft of a Hallmark card. And the inherent paternalistic racism of Butterfly… well, that bugs me, too. The operas are often bloated and slow. Good thing they sound great; that’s what makes them popular, as well.
So I was pleasantly surprised when the Dallas Opera’s current production of La Boheme turned out to be so delightful. I’m not sure what set it apart from previous productions (I’ve seen at least three), except perhaps that it moves briskly and with a great sense of humor and lightness. This Boheme sparkles.
In an artists’ garret in fin-de-siecle Paris, a clutch of starving painters are writers struggle to stay warm and feed themselves. Into the mix comes Mimi (South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza), a sickly but beautiful seamstress who captures the attention of Rodolfo (Jean Francois Borras). In typical Puccini style, they are rapturously attracted but endure a contentious, doomed romance (hey, no spoilers … it’s opera). Meanwhile, Marcello (Anthony Clark Evans) courts his on-again-off-again paramour Musetta (Sara Gartland), a flibbertigibbet who taunts Marcello while gold-digging a wealthy cuckold. It’s all very au-courant — hipsters at the turn of the century.
Matshikiza has a soaring voice, and while Gartland’s isn’t as powerful, it is perfectly pitched for “Musetta’s waltz.” Stage director Tomas Zvulun puts them and all their castmates to a brisk production, and conductor Giuliano Carella leads the orchestra adeptly. This is a truly satisfying Boheme.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
At the Winspear Opera House, tonight at 7:30 p.m., as well as March 23, 29 and 31. DallasOpera.org.