UTAH LYRIC OPERA, LA BOHÈME, Covey Center for the Arts, Provo, Feb. 8; second performance 7:30 p.m., Feb. 9, tickets at 801-852-7007 or www.coveycenter.org.
Comparisons between the Utah Lyric Opera’s La Traviata from last season (their first fully staged opera with a full orchestra) and their current production of La Bohème are inevitable. Both productions had the same director (Elizabeth Hansen) and conductor (Stephen Dubberly), and even some of the same costumes. Both protagonists die of consumption in Paris around Carnival season. And both productions were good. But as much as I enjoyed La Traviata, the ULO did a much better job with La Bohème.
For starters, everything just ran much more smoothly this season. The sets were much more elaborate, impressive and functional than the sofa and tables in La Traviata, and the costumes came off as deliberate rather than just available.
Hansen once again chose to advance the setting of the opera to the 20thcentury, and although I don’t know how much that deepened the story, it made available some great 1940s costumes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with.
The amazing thing about the ULO is the quality of their local talent and their ability to pull in outstanding talent from elsewhere. Tenor Isaac Hurtado, for example, had a voice and presence equal to his role as Rodolfo. Early on in the performance, his upper register had an airy quality to it, but as the night went on it became richer until his last cry of “Mimì, Mimì” filled the theater.
Baritone Christopher Holmes, who tripled as executive director, chorus master and Marcello in this production, was solid in his supporting role, playing off of Hurtado, Musetta (soprano Jennie Litster) and the other bohemians with wit and chemistry.
Litster was essentially perfect in her role as Musetta. Her acting was nothing short of hilarious and her singing was superb. She had a way of making herself the center of attention, which worked so well with Musetta’s character
And then there was Mimì, played by soprano Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller. Her credentials are as impressive as her voice. She won a Tony for her role as Mimì in Baz Luhrmann’s (director of the Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo + Juliet) Broadway staging of La Bohème, for which she was also nominated for a Grammy. Seegmiller’s voice had the clarion quality of a ringing bell, and when she was really going full throttle it felt like I was sitting in the center of cathedral chimes. But she also deftly brought out a vulnerability and sincerity to her singing as the scene required.
The actual drama is at the heart of these ULO productions. The first two acts had the audience roaring with laughter due to the excellent staging and acting of the cast. When the bohemians throw out their landlord in mock moral horror, the scene had all the musical heft as the climax of Don Giovanni, and therein lies part of Puccini’s comedic genius.
Puccini writes mini arias of ironic devastation over a burnt manuscript, painful shoe or a lost coat with the same weight that his contemporaries would write an opera with in earnest.
The cast was so good at the mock misery that I was worried Mimì’s death in the last act would be overshadowed by the comedic genius of the first half of the opera. But Puccini and Hurtado saved the day. Until that point, all of the mock melodrama was longwinded and pedantic, but when Rodolfo is confronted with his beloved’s death, his only line is a sincere, “Mimì, Mimì.”
With La Bohème, the ULO has proven that last year’s La Traviata wasn’t a happy accident or fluke. They have the native talent and know-how to produce consistently excellent work.