Opera review: Madison Opera makes traditional ‘Boheme’ new again

There are two ways to look at Madison’s Opera current production of “La Boheme.”

If you have never before attended an opera, this is the one to attend (there’s a second performance Sunday afternoon in the Overture Center).

Giocomo’s moving love story of garret-dwelling artists and their loved ones contains some of the most beautiful music ever composed and you’d have to be a cretin not to weep at the outcome.

Now, that’s true of any performance of “La Boheme.” Whether you see it in a Podunk amateur performance or at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, “La Boheme” is an opera that will move and gratify the audience.

On the other hand, if you have seen “La Boheme” before, you have probably seen it several times. So the question for you is what makes the Madison Opera performance different and what makes it enjoyable?

My feeling – and this impression seemed to be shared by several in the audience who chatted during the intermissions — is that this “Boheme” is the best I’ve seen anywhere, including the high-definition broadcasts from the Met.

It is crisper. It moves rapidly. The singers seem to fit comfortably in the story (sometimes in an opera it is possible for the singers to overpower the story). The characters are believable. The performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra was flawless. It is just a good production.

The story of “La Boheme” begins in a Parisian garret (before Friday night’s performance Madison Opera General Manager Kathryn Smith stepped in front of the curtain and asked the audience for a moment of silence to honor those caught in Friday’s massacre in Paris), where a group of artists are hungry and cold because they have no wood for a fire.

Shaunard, a musician, shows up with food, wine and fuel because he obtained a job making music for a parrot and the parrot, finally, died.

Three of the band head off for Cafe Momus, but the fourth, Renaldo, stays behind to work on an essay. Mackenze Whitney sings that role. Renaldo is soon joined by Mimi, Eleni Calenos, a sick, freezing neighbor who comes by to have Renaldo light her candle. Calenos was a star of Opera in the Park last summer.

The two fall in love, head out for the cafe and meet Musseta, a courtesan who is in love with Marcello, Dan Kempson, one of the Renaldo’s buddies, but who keeps leaving him for rich suitors. They all have a wonderful time and the scene is populated by children, soldiers and toys.

In the second act, Mimi and Renaldo are having problems. Renaldo is being difficult because, he tells Marcello, he is afraid Mimi is dying. After some theatrics, however, Renaldo and Mimi decide to stay together until spring.

Which brings us to the third act, when Renaldo and Mimi are split again, but Mimi shows up at the garret dying from tuberculosis. She dies and the audience cries.

Opera plots don’t do well in summary form but all this is accompanied by truly beautiful singing by everyone concerned. It’s pretty obvious that those involved are trying to tell a story, not just perform a musical event. The emotion comes through and the characters blend their voices for the good of the overall performance.

For disclosure purposes, my aunt, Helen Wineke, is one of the lead sponsors of this performance. She liked it, too, and her opinion is more important than mine because she helped pay for it.