If you go
What: Opera Colorado's "La Bohème"
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7, 10 and 15; 2 p.m. Nov. 12
Where: Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1385 Curtis St. in the Denver Performing Arts Complex
Cost: $15-$160 Tuesday; $20-$170 Friday; $55-$210 Sunday, Nov. 12; $15-$160 Wednesday, Nov. 15
More info: 303-468-2030 or operacolorado.org
Because Giacomo Puccini wrote very little besides operatic works, his mastery of orchestration is often overlooked, yet his great gift for recognizing exactly which tone colors are best to illustrate dramatic situations — and to dress up his incomparable melodies — is a major factor in making immortal masterpieces of his greatest operas.
Puccini's "La Bohème" — which is both his most beloved work and easily one of the most popular in the repertoire — opened Opera Colorado's 2017-18 season Saturday night at Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Despite the considerable dramatic intensity, effective comedy and beautiful singing happening onstage during the production, it is music director Ari Pelto's breathtaking wizardry in the pit that most distinguishes this staging of "Bohème."
Pelto's incredible gift for interpreting operatic scores and for getting the most out of his orchestra was one of the reasons Opera Colorado named him to the post in 2015. On Saturday, his focus never wavered. Not only did he place Puccini's orchestral mastery on full display, he also demonstrated incredible focus, always making his intentions clear to the singers. And each of the opera's four acts came across as the contrasting staged tone poems that they are.
The six principal singers form a cohesive ensemble, and director Matthew Ozawa has helped them work together as a unit, whether it is just a pair of them onstage or the whole group. Four of them are making their Opera Colorado debut, including the two primary leads. Soprano Anya Matanovic is the standout as the doomed seamstress, Mimì. Her Act I aria soars to radiant heights, and her death scene at the end is as believable as possible, with just the right vocal inflections as Mimì fades away.
Tenor Dominick Chenes is sympathetic and sincere in his portrayal of the poet Rodolfo (the central figure of the four "Bohemian" artists). While he sings with great beauty, his interpretive decisions are also impeccable. Chenes is to be commended for singing the notes Puccini actually wrote at the end of Act I — forming a heart-melting harmony with Matanovic — rather than following the unfortunate tradition of going up with her in unison to a high C (something that is not in the score and which Puccini never sanctioned). We have already heard the high C at the climax of his aria and there is just no need to hear it again.
Baritone Levi Hernandez as the painter Marcello delivers the role with the right amount of forceful comedy and mild cynicism. Marcello is a pivotal, but often thankless role (he has no aria), yet the character is the glue that holds the entire group together. He and Chenes were brilliant in their "love" duet at the beginning of Act IV.
Soprano Monica Yunus is glorious as Marcello's lover, the singer Musetta. Act II lasts all of 20 minutes, yet the buildup to Musetta's waltz-aria and its climax is an absolute wonder of music drama. Yunus dominates the stage in the passage (her vibrant costume helps matters), and she paces the aria perfectly. Later on, in Act IV, her entrance with the news of Mimì's condition has all the shock value it should.
The other two "Bohemians" complete the ensemble with aplomb. Bass Joshua Bloom is a revelation as the philosopher Colline. Possessed of a powerful voice that resonates throughout the Ellie, Bloom is a strong presence whenever he is on stage. Colline's "coat aria" in Act IV is an unexpected highlight, Bloom's passionate delivery contributing greatly to the scene's pathos.
Finally, baritone and new University of Colorado voice faculty member Andrew Garland plays the musician Schaunard with affable charm, especially in the high comedy of his Act I monologue, which describes how Schaunard has obtained a small treasure to briefly relieve the group of their poverty.
As is typical, Opera Colorado features its young artists in supporting roles, of which "Bohème" really only has two of any significance. Basses Andrew Hiers as the landlord Benoit and Heath Martin as Musetta's foolish old suitor Alcindoro both make the most of their scenes.
Ozawa's direction of the characters' movements is always visually arresting, especially in the rather static Act III, where Mimì's strategic placement during a conversation between Rodolfo and Marcello is a good example. Act II is suitably vivid, and Pelto's support in the pit makes it even more so. The chorus only appears in this act, but it is its lifeblood, and as usual the Opera Colorado ensemble — led by chorus master Sahar Nouri — is superb. It is supplemented by a contingent from the always excellent Colorado Children's Chorale.
The production sets come to Denver via Dallas and several previous locales, and they are attractive, especially the garret set used for the first and last acts. They provide a fine frame for Ozawa's dynamic direction. "La Bohème" plays four more times through Wednesday, Nov. 15.