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Tragedy and triumph in Annapolis Opera's 'La Boheme'

Annapolis Opera's production of Puccini's "La Boheme" was a triumph at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, where it was enjoyed by a near-capacity audience at its opening and a sold-out house in its second performance.

Excellent performances were offered by a cast of stellar singers in leading and minor roles. Vocalists were supported by Annapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians under the direction of Ronald J. Gretz, now in his 31st season as Annapolis Opera's artistic director and conductor.

Adding spirited drama and vitality were the Annapolis Opera Chorus and Children's Chorus of Maryland. Both performances of Puccini's classic were further enhanced by sets provided by Opera Delaware.

Based on Henri Murger's 1849 play "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme," Puccini's "La Boheme" premiered in Turin in February 1896, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Its theme of contemporary young Parisians' love and loss was a departure from the standard fare of the day — and an instant hit with the public. By World War I, it had achieved popularity through many world opera houses.

Today, "La Boheme" is among the most often performed operas. Its enduring popularity stems from its simple story of impoverished young characters seeking happiness — their dreams coming alive as set to Puccini's incomparable melodies lending insight into each character.

The opera tells of friends, painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo, and Rodolfo's love at first sight with neighbor seamstress Mimi. Marcello has his own love with former flame Musetta, whose "Musetta's Waltz" shows her determination to reignite those flames.

Mimi falls gravely ill, and in the last act Musetta brings her to Rodolfo. Alone, the couple reflects on their love "Sono andati" (final love duet). As she died, the opera concludes powerfully with Rodolfo's desperate cry for Mimi.

Annapolis Opera's production boasted a stellar cast, headed by young tenor Sean Arnold, who seems destined to sing Rodolfo, delivering an ardently romantic, wonderful "Che gelida manina" that captivated the audience with its natural charm and intensity.

This was followed by soprano Michelle Johnson's introductory aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" — not characterized by sweet lightness usually associated with this aria — but nevertheless conveying Mimi's rapture at spring's arrival. Together, Arnold and Johnson gained dramatic rapport in the love duet that ends the scene.

In the third act Johnson presents Mimi's "Addio" to reveal with intensity a loving, compassionate woman cherishing her relationship with Rodolfo -- enough to free him, to say goodbye without regrets despite her anguish.

Annapolis Opera's "La Boheme" was brightened by Baltimore diva and Annapolis Opera favorite Colleen Daly as the flirtatious beauty Musetta, a role she owns. Capable of turning heads, Daly brought delicious fun and warmth to the famous Waltz and dramatic passion to her interplay with baritone Timothy Mix's Marcello. In the final act, Daly delivered a compassionate "intesi dire," describing her finding Mimi ill. Later, her heartfelt prayer for Mimi is incredibly moving.

Mix brought a commanding presence, great drama and a warm sonorous voice to his portrayal of Marcello.

Although the role of Colline is minor, baritone Bradley Smoak deserves bravos for his excellent "Vecchia zimarra" that provided a memorable moment; and baritone Gregory Gerbrandt's Schaunard is worthy of bravos for his vocal ability and dynamic athleticism displayed in several scenes, adding needed comedy and youthful vigor.

Altogether Annapolis Opera must be commended for delivering this memorable production of "La Boheme," capturing the ecstatic joy of young love as it turns into perhaps opera's most profound tragedy of illness and death.

Got opera?

There's still time to prepare for the next outing for the Annapolis Opera: the 26th Anniversary Vocal Competition Weekend, in which opera hopefuls compete for more than $10,000 in prizes to enable more training and education.

Held at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Art, the semifinals will be10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 3. This event is open to spectators, as 30 semifinalists vie for one of eight finalist spots.

A finals concert will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 4. Both events are free. For more details, call 410- 267-0087 or go to annapolisopera.org.

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