The Madison Opera's production of Puccini's La Bohème at Overture Hall last weekend was surely one of the company's most successful ventures. Telling the story of four struggling bohemians and the two women they love in 19th century Paris, it offered the audience both a visual and musical treat.
The visual dimensions of the production -- created for and owned by the Canadian Opera Company -- were a major factor. Three intermissions extended the evening, but allowed shifting of the elaborate sets. The delays were worth it. The three sets were sumptuous, but each imaginatively appropriate. The costumes (including those for a battalion of choristers in Act II) were aptly realistic and gorgeous. Michael Ehrman's direction fused his cast into a wonderfully integrated acting ensemble, with richly detailed movements.
Musically, the cast was a strong one. The singers, most in their Madison debuts, were all young, lively, and generally looked their parts to perfection. The male leads were quite good vocally, if never brilliant. As Rodolfo, tenor Dinyar Vania tried his best both to sound and to look like the late Pavarotti. But despite attractive singing, he did not suggest a very convincing lover. Baritone Luis Ledesma was a handsomely sprightly Marcello. Though he did not quite realize the bass potential shown in his Sparafucile in last season's Rigoletto, David Michael was still an appealing Colline, even beyond his famous "coat" monologue. Baritone Tony Dillon, in his small but telling roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, was the standout singing actor among the men.
But the cast's real vocal glories were the two female leads, both lovely women and outstanding sopranos. Lauren Skuce's voice has a touch of matronly heaviness, but she projected Mimi's melting lines and vulnerable personality to create a truly sympathetic character. Musetta's big scene in Act II is a guaranteed show-stopper, but Susanna Phillips sang and romped up a storm with irresistible flair. Both these singers are ones to watch.
Guest conductor Hal France, veteran of Madison Opera's recent Magic Flute, drew well-honed playing from Madison Symphony members. There were times when I thought his pacing slowed a bit much, perhaps to favor some singers. But he caught the sharp contrasts of Act IV particularly well and allowed the opera's final moments to achieve all the emotional power that the crafty composer intended.
Whatever cavils, this was a well molded production, as good as offered even in our country's top houses.