Bohemian Rhapsody

Houston Grand Opera kicked off its new season, the Year of the Diva, with La Bohème. But opening night could just as well have been called the Battle of the Divas.

Puerto Rican-American soprano Ana Maria Martinez (last seen by Houston audiences in Florencia en el Amazonas last year) returned to sing the lead role of the tubercular Mimi, but she had to fight for audience affection with newcomer Ainhoa Arteta, a Spanish-born soprano making her debut in Houston as second banana Musetta. Both women are songbirds of extreme talent, but Arteta's Carol Burnett-styling of the supporting female role almost stole the show from Mimi's doomed love affair.

Martinez is beautiful to the eye and the ear, her lithe figure and angelic face an ideal pairing for the dying flower-maker Mimi. And her arias, some of the most famous by Giacomo Puccini, rise to almost dizzying heights. She shines in the Act I meeting with Rodolfo (sung opening night by Italian tenor Roberto Aronica) as they search for her lost key in the dark and cold garret of the struggling artists. The verbalizing of their instant love is one of the high points of the singing (although die-hard Rent fans will want to hear her warble "Will You Light My Candle" instead of "Si, mi chiamano Mimi"). When they drift outside the garret -- actually it exits from them as the set fades into the background and the famous moon rises over the street scene -- they continue in a soaring duet of undying love.

But before you can shed a tear, set designer Allen Moyer's raucous Café Momus erupts in dazzling lights and the chorus of Houston Grand Opera claims the stage as street urchins, shoppers and revelers in a vibrant staging of Act II. This is where you start wondering what it would be like if the roles were reversed. The new lovers are accosted by the sight of the ex, Musetta, as she is wined and dined by a wealthy suitor. Arteta is beautiful, hilarious and compelling. While trying to woo back former beau Marcello (Earle Patriarco), she throws her shoe at the bohemians' table, and in the finale of her passionate duet with Patriarco she has one shoeless leg draped over the table. Her comedic styling is all the more amazing in the context of a poignant love song. It's like watching Plácido Domingo warble Wagner while wearing boxer shorts. It's a highbrow hoot.

Speaking of Domingo, he's a frequent concert partner of Arteta, who herself debuted as Mimi at the Metropolitan Opera. One longs to hear her repeat the role here. Not to take away from Martinez, who is equally brilliant although a tad weak, no pun intended, on her deathbed.

As for the men of Paris, Aronica is gifted, though a bit timorous in the opening scene. Patriarco is an able Marcello and shines in his duets with Arteta. American bass Oren Gradus turns in a wonderful Colline, and baritone Daniel Belcher lends his voice and body to a moving portrayal of philosopher Schaunard, particularly in the last act.

From Rent to Moonstruck, La Bohème is a cultural phenomenon well known and well loved even by non-operagoers. In this version, directed by James Robinson and first seen at the New York City Opera last spring, the action has been moved up in time to World War I. While inventive and theatrically sound, the production somehow lacks some of the romance of earlier productions. Perhaps it's just the reality of war that overshadows some of the make-believe of the popular opera. Moyer does an excellent job with sets, particularly the slope-floored garret of the starving artists and the brightly lit sign of the Café Momus. James Schuette turns out workable bohemian costumes, the only beauty being in Musetta's red evening gown with an ostrich plume and in her stylish suit in Act IV. Stephen Strawbridge has a winning way with lights; the full moon and the gloomy Act III train depot are both stunning. And the HGO Orchestra, under the baton of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, is a delight with the Puccini score.

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Marene Gustin