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Review: MOT’s ‘La Boheme’ likeable but no thrill

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News
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Conventional and earnest, Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which opened the company’s 45th season Saturday night, is buoyant without quite rising to the heights.

It’s likable, with a palpable chemistry among the young cast, but the thrill factor isn’t exactly there.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with convention. One would rather see bohemian life played out in Paris of the 1830s, as Puccini intended, rather than witness Mimi shooting up heroin, as the English National Opera production across the pond portrays.

While there’s no driving oomph in MOT’s outing, it has a solid cast, fine sets and a direction that strives to be more realistic than mawkish.

“Boheme” is schmaltzy enough without adding sugar, although many directors do just that. Happily, director Mario Corradi keeps this a lo-cal version. When Mimi dies at the end, the audience should be moved, but not to tears.

This “Boheme” is well sung, with the hearty-voiced tenor Sean Panikkar as Rodolfo and soprano Nicole Cabell as his consumptive lover, Mimi. Cabell is better suited vocally as Mimi than as Violetta in “La Traviata,” the opera she performed in 2013 with MOT.

What’s attractive about her performance — aside from her silvery voice — is that she doesn’t portray Mimi as a fragile waif, bursting with wide-eyed innocence.

Like her friend Musetta, Mimi is what the French in the 19th century called a grisette, which can most charitably described as a working woman of the world. No, a grisette is not a prostitute, but she’s someone who has been around the block a time or two.

In her opening aria, “Mi chiamano Mimi” (“They call me Mimi”), she admits to Rodolfo that her real name is Lucia. That implies that she has, or had, another identity, and probably a shadowy one. Of course, that doesn’t matter to the smitten Rodolfo.

In too many productions of “Boheme,” Mimi is a delicate flower, but she’s no shrinking violet.

She and her other impoverished bohemian friends are all free spirits, good-hearted if not angelic. They love one another and, despite turns of jealousy, horseplay and occasional sniping, they accept one another and are willing to sacrifice or share their pathetic possessions in order for the others to be more comfortable.

As Marcello, baritone Rodion Pogossov sounded fine, but he took a while to loosen up his stilted acting.

Soprano Marina Costa-Jackson was convincing as the ditzy but kind Musetta, and young singers Jeff Byrnes (as Schaunard) and Brent Michael Smith (as Colline) — both part of MOT’s new training program called Studio Artists — performed with confidence.

Conductor Leonardo Vordoni seemed he had a plane to catch in the first two acts. His tempos were so brisk and insistent that he jumped ahead of the singers at points. But in the last two acts, his pace slowed down, and the broader approach resulted in romantic, well-sculpted phrases.

Michael Yeargan’s sets were fitting if rather expected. However, there are few lovelier or magical moments in opera when the snow falls softly and tenderly over the outskirts of Paris in the third act, a scene in which Yeargan and lighting designer Christopher Maravich can take pride in creating.

MOT’s ‘La Boheme’

Through Oct. 25. Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit. Sean Panikkar and Nicole Cabell sing Oct. 21 and 24. Alternating in their roles Oct. 25 are Eric Margiore and Lina Tetriani. Tickets: $29-$149. 313-237-SING, michiganopera.org.

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