Atlanta Opera's "La Bohème" aims high but doesn't get there

It is perhaps the most popular opera in the repertoire for its glorious melodies and stabbing emotions, but also for its reliability in the opera house. An audience will be won over with good voices, a romantic Paris snow scene and unfussy stage direction.

The Atlanta Opera’s production of “La Bohème” exceeded those minimums Saturday night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in opening its 31st season. Yet not all the pieces operated smoothly, a fault that came mostly from the two-dimensional conducting of Gregory Vajda.

Puccini’s score is richly embroidered, a web of lace and filigree and subtlety beneath the soaring lyricism. Although he’s worked in Atlanta before -- with mixed results in “Romeo et Juliette” and “La Cenerentola” -- Vajda often couldn’t get the orchestra to play together or cradle the singers’ voices in sympathy. It’s curious to hear an ambitious regional opera company under perform at such a fundamental level.

A lack of strong support from the pit, predictably, exaggerated the unevenness of the cast.

Tenor Bryan Hymel, with a boyish persona, sang his career-first Rodolfo the poet, although he’s sung other Puccini heroes, mostly in Europe. On Saturday his sound was small and pinched, and he was never comfortable with the Italian.

The contrast was evident with his doomed lover Mimi, sung by the petite Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio. She handled the role, soulful and appealing, with an easy lyricism and a glint of steel in her tone. Rodolfo sounded wimpy beside her. If her voice were a little sweeter she’d be an international star.

Soprano Jan Cornelius made a properly flamboyant Musetta as a brassy redhead, her high notes sparkling, her famous waltz gentle and sexy.

BaritoneTimothy Kuhn stood out for his Marcello the painter, with a distinctive, robust voice. (Kuhn sounds a little like baritone of the moment, Gerald Finley, of "Doctor Atomic" fame.)

Indeed, the evening’s most musically satisfying scene came at the start of act three, in the snow, with Marcello and the tubercular Mimi together -- a moment that showed this production’s potential.

Bass Matthew Curran, the philosopher Colline, solidly offered a farewell to his beloved coat. As the musician Schaunard, baritone Andrew Garland didn’t leave much of an impression.

Bass John LaForge, an Atlantan, sang the tiny boffo roles of Benoit (the duped landlord) and Alcindoro (the duped rich guy) almost to perfection -- playfully serious with rounded, booming tones -- and sounded here even better than his recent portrayal of Orgon in Capitol City Opera’s “Tartuffe.”

Fortunately, director David Gately was musically attuned to the score -- more so than the conductor -- in matters of silly theatricality and poignant emotion. The singers looked their parts and acted well. The single set, a rental designed by Peter Dean Beck, delivered the expected impoverished “Bohème” look.

It came together in the final act, as Mimì lay dying and her chums gather around and grapple with their own feelings. Puccini’s orchestra alerts us to her death with an icy shiver, and, as her hand-warming muff fell to the floor, I suspect there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.ArtsCriticATL.com

Puccini’s “La Bohème”

Atlanta Opera.  7:30 p.m., Oct. 5; 8 p.m., Oct. 8; and 3 p.m., Oct. 10. $25-$140. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org

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