More than a few tears were shed Saturday night as Mimi breathed her last in Bass Hall. Mimi is, of course, the doomed heroine of Puccinis La Boheme, arguably the most popular opera of all time. The hall was jammed for this opening performance of the Fort Worth Operas 2013 festival.
This Boheme packed not only a musical but a dramatic punch. A fine cast, with an exceptional Rodolfo, and the excellent backing of the Fort Worth Symphony and the Fort Worth Opera chorus under Joe Illicks leadership provided the musical punch. The stagewise cast and David Lefkowichs subtle direction heightened the drama.
Rodolfo was Sean Panikkar, whose gorgeous lyric tenor voice made one anticipate the characters every appearance. The topping on the cake was that he is a gifted actor who tugged at the emotions without exaggerated histrionics.
He was surrounded by a strong group of collaborators: Mary Dunleavy as a vocally and dramatically attractive Mimi, Rosa Betancourt as a sparkling but not overdone Musetta, and Wes Mason, John Boehr and Derrick Parker as Rodolfos three lively buddies: Marcello, Schaunard and Colline.
Lefkowich managed to make this hyperfamiliar opera seem fresh, not by dramatic flourishes but by quiet small embellishments that brought something new to familiar old scenes. The final scene worked beautifully, slightly understated maybe, with Rodolfo embracing one of his buddies in grief rather than rushing immediately to the dead Mimis side.
In Act 2 Musetta was slightly sexier than usual but with no traditional table-top dancing.
The highest point among many high points was Act 3s scene with Marcello, Mimi, Rodolfo and Musetta. This tugged at the heart strings, and one could only marvel at Puccinis extraordinary skill in contrasting the gentle love song of Rodolfo and Mimi with the cat-fight squabbling of Marcello and Musetta -- all singing at the same time. The surprise ending of the Marcello-Musetta conflict was another fine touch by Lefkowich.
The scenic designs by R. Keith Brumley, with effective lighting by Chad R. Jung, dont stray far from tradition. Bass Halls large stage gives plenty of room to designer and cast, and the crowd scenes are doable without collisions.
The hall was certainly in a festive mood. Lobbies were jammed before the performance and during intermissions, and there were various circusy acts about. My favorite was the hula-hoop lady.
La Boheme will be repeated at 2 p.m. on April 28 and 7:30 p.m. on May 3 in Bass Hall. Details at fwopera.org.