The unexpected balm of ‘La Boheme’

Madison Opera again shows off its best qualities, and the timing could not be better

There are times when world events collide most unexpectedly with a long-planned presentation of a work of art, and it can be difficult to separate the critical ear and eye from the reality-colored lens suddenly thrust upon them.

Such was the case Friday night in Overture Hall, when Madison Opera opened its season with Puccini’s beloved tale of youthful dreams and loves, La” Boheme.” So let it be stated matter-of-factly at the outset: The production is another solid winner in our local company’s recent string of strong offerings.

No one could have known that just hours before the curtain went up, the world would reel again at the news of senseless terrorist bombings on a massive scale in Paris…the setting of course for the opera, albeit circa 1830. What could the fictional tale of one young life tragically lost offer against the horror that many in the audience must have already witnessed on their TV screens? Some would argue that the question is moot, and general director Kathryn Smith did the simplest and most sensible thing under the circumstances. She came out in front of the curtain before the proceedings, and made note that the opera is set in Paris, and Paris was undoubtedly on the minds of many there, and invited us to join her in a moment of silence.
Whether the cast was feeling any greater sense of urgency in performing under such circumstances is impossible to say, for they gave us what we have come to expect at a Madison Opera production: Fine to excellent singing, convincing ensemble acting, stimulating and (gratefully) unprovocative direction, and lush accompaniment from the Madison Symphony under the affectionately expressive leading of John DeMain.

A majority of the principal roles were taken by young singers making their company debuts. The central role of Mimi, the irresistibly sweet heroine who succumbs to tuberculosis, was brought to winsome life by Eleni Calenos. She technically made her company debut at last summer’s Opera in the Park, but this was her first stage appearance here. The voice is strong, attractive, unforced and she can act. Vivid evidence of this–and of the kinds of touches director David Lefkowich would bring–came in Act I when the ardent Rodolfo declares his passion; Calenos turns away from him coyly–and toward the audience, allowing us to see her unabashed joy at his affection.

Said wooer was played by Mackenzie Whitney, who is a light-voiced tenor and thankfully a savvy one. On paper, as they say in sports, he could easily be overmatched in the power department by Calenos, but even when he was on his own vocally, he was careful not to strain for the top notes, but generally gave them enough heft to make us forget that he (at this point at least) probably doesn’t have the sheer force for ringing top notes.

The Marcello of Dan Kempson in his local debut was a great foil for Whitney, and Liam Moron as the philosopher Colline and Alan Dunbar as Schaunard rounded out the quartet of fellows who could express a natural camaraderie and convincingly engage in believably broad humor in the first part of the final act.

Emily Birsan was not just a vocal knock-out as Musetta, but brought a depth to the role not always encountered. It is one thing for a soprano to show her tender side as Mimi embarks on her deathbed scene, but even in Act II with the great “Musetta’s Waltz” number, we find Birsan–again with the deft and inventive hand of Lefkowich–bringing more than just a vocal characterization. She begins the famous number in a kind of halting half-waltz with her sugar daddy, Alcindoro, and then in mid-aria works the crowd of gawking onlookers in Carmen-esque “Habanera” fashion. A great touch.

Lefkowich, in his third go-round here, straddled that fine line wonderfully between finding those new wrinkles without distorting what remains a compelling story with an inexorable dramatic and musical flow. The scenery, from Lyric Opera of Kansas City, is handsomely traditional, and garnered opening applause at the beginning of Acts II and III. Connie Yun, in her debut as lighting designer, also deserves specific mention for some wonderful effects, particularly in the third act.

And so we found ourselves quickly immersed just where we had hoped to be in recent days as opening night approached: Falling in love all over again with gorgeous music that animates these cherished characters. But both intermissions gave space for the mind to turn back to the “real world,” and one comment overheard was “the opera just seems even more human tonight.” Perhaps in the end that was part of the therapeutic effect the performance had under these circumstances, that even in the shadow of the worst that mankind can inflict on itself, there are these seemingly eternal lights that remind us of a part of what is our best. The second performance is Sunday afternoon at 2:30. If you go, you will experience a fully wonderful “La Boheme” on its own terms … and it might just be the balm you need to heal at least a little the numbing ache that world events impose upon us.