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La Boheme
by Aaron Hunt

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By Giacomo Puccini

At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20. N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600;; $49-$279 . Runs through: Oct. 20

Opera takes the elevated form of classical theater and replaces spoken word with music. From that lofty perch, how do the artists share the souls of their characters?

With the Lyric's season opener La Boheme, they do it with seeming ease. In Giacomo Puccini's famous love story, the cast sings with such vocal assurance that their technique is invisible and unheard. You'll be so engrossed in their characters' lives, you'll forget they are singing. Lofty artifice falls away, and all that's left is all humanity.

Director Richard Jones has talked about the importance of backstory, biography and research. He's a fan of clarity of intention and not averse to having his actor/vocalists study Stanislavski. You can see that approach in La Boheme: Under his direction, all the players "speak" their lines as if for the first time, finding the emotions anew. From awakening to catharsis, they seem to live rather than telegraph their emotions.

Jones' choreographed blocking complements and contrasts with the world of set and costume designer Stewart Laing's sparse, vibrating, geometric Paris. This La Boheme is defined by garrets of gray girders and the starched-linen whiteness of Cafe Momus, the bohemian cafe where the city's artists love to gather. Laing uses a distinctive color palette—the black rectangle of a tavern, the blacks, whites and grays of along snow—throughout the production. That makes the sudden, almost intrusive golden arcades and Christmas-card color and light of Act II's opening all the more powerful. Rather than inviting us in, the colors push us into the world of La Boheme. Human bodies seem more alive against all the cold, sharp angles.

Making his long-awaited Lyric debut as La Boheme's struggling playwright Rudolpho, tenor Michael Fabiano is tall and handsome, and sings with a ringing tone that echoes back to the golden days of such tenors as Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli. ( Rudolpho's romance with Mimi has a happier parallel in real life: Fabiano is set to marry Bryan McCallister later this month. )

As the doomed Mimi, soprano Maria Agresta shines. It is Puccini's genius that this character's sweetness is depicted in music that falls on the ear as tinkling tunes, but she is no easy sing. The chiaroscuro of Agresta's voice, and her generous, Italianate phrasing conjured thoughts of Mirella Freni.

As Musetta, Danielle De Niese sings her famous waltz aria while weaving atop the café's tables, love-besotted, half-drunken and Lucille Ball-funny. ( Spoiler alert: Panties can be weapons. ) Musetta's last act prayer aria has to be earned. De Niese always evokes vulnerability on some level, and when that vulnerability floats to the surface, it's without a false note.

As Musetta's ex, Marcello, Zachary Nelson reads masculine in that distant way we once preferred in our male movie stars. His passions are shared with his buddies, but his inability to be emotionally open with Musetta makes fantastic sense. Adrian Sampetrean's Colline is sweet, and Ricardo Jose Rivera is a lovable, goofy-gus as Schaunard.

Here's De Niese on La Boheme: "Everything is so heightened and dramatically extended. It's what we do vocally—we extend emotional thought. [Jones] is trying to juxtapose that with natural human behavior." Consider the attempt achieved in this production.

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