Young singers identify with 'La Boheme' roles

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 4:47 p.m.

Giacomo Puccini was already a successful opera composer when he decided to write “La Boheme.”

He had many big hits ahead of him, including “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly” and his last and unfinished opera “Turnadot,” but he never surpassed the sheer felicity of his opera about impoverished young lovers in Paris.

Whether singing the opera for the first time or delighting in returning to a familiar friend, performers look forward to “La Boheme,” which also is among the most popular operas with audiences.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of “La Boheme” starting March 29 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The cast stars American soprano Leah Crocetto and Mexican tenor David Lomeli as the young lovers Mimi and Rodolfo. Due to a scheduling conflict, Eric Barry will make his company debut substituting for Lomeli as Rodolfo at the student matinee April 4 and the final subscription performance April 6.

“La Boheme's” libretto is based on Henri Muger's “Scenes of the Bohemian Life.” Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere of the opera in 1896 at the Teatro Reggio in Turin, Italy.

The opera opens in a garret on Christmas eve, where the painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo are cold and hungry. Their roommates, Colline and Schunard, arrive with food, fuel for the heater and money. Rodolfo remains behind to write when his friends leave for a cafe. When the candle of a neighbor, the beautiful Mimi, goes out, she knocks on the door for help. The ensuing scene, during which Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love, is one of the most beautiful in opera.

The second act shows Mimi and Rodolfo with their friends enjoying life at a cafe, but by the next act complications have clouded the romance. Mimi is fatally ill in the final act.

Opera music director Antony Walker is excited to be returning to “La Boheme.”

“When you come back to something, and examine the score and libretto through the lens of life experience, you find different things,” he says. “Now the (opera's) arc, which starts off in this sort of refreshing youthful ideals and ends with sobering reality with both of them growing up very fast, has been pressed on me even more.”

Walker is especially struck by Puccini's ideas about thematic development for his characters.

“Its very subtle,” he says. “Each of the characters has a theme which comes back in different guises. Puccini does this sort of progression so brilliantly in his journey of emotional discovery.”

The cast stars two rising singers who identify with the characters they're portraying.

Lomeli made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in November 2010 as Edgar in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” performances which were conducted by Walker. The tenor has previously said Walker is his favorite conductor for bel canto repertoire, such as “Lucia,” but, after preparing “La Boheme” with him, is even more expansive in his praise.

“He's kind of becoming my favorite conductor, period,” the tenor says. “I have the most comfortable experiences as a singer because he sings himself. A lot of conductors ask for a piano or a forte, but Antony not only shows it in the orchestra, he sometimes comes to you and asks, ‘What do you think about lifting your palette here.' He sings with you. He breathes with you. I enjoy it so much. It's a beautiful experience so far.”

Lomeli says he always wanted to sing and was the kid who wanted to be the national hero in the play. He says Mexican culture is full of music and art but many people are passionate amateurs because they think there isn't any money to be made from music.

The singer studied engineering in college at a large university in Monterrey, which has a 2,000-seat theater and a festival that has attracted Luciano Pavarotti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Six months into his freshman year, Lomeli auditions for a school production of “West Side Story.”

“I didn't have a music degree, but I listened to Jose Carreras and tried to imitate him as best as I could,” he says.

Lomeli was offered a full scholarship if he was interested in joining a student opera company being formed.

“It was perfect. I started singing and finding more people like me who wanted to sing and were actually very good,” Lomeli says.

His university days became split — part spent on regular academics, part spent on music, with trips to Barcelona, Spain, and Milan, Italy, for advanced studies.

“By the time I graduated, I felt this was my calling,” he says. “I remember giving my degree to my dad and saying, ‘I got this. Now let me try what I want.' ”

Lomeli credits Placido Domingo with discovering him. Lomeli won the 2006 Operalia Competition that Domingo founded.

Among Lomeli's many notable appearances on world stages was a 2010 performance of Giuseppe's Verdi's Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by former Pittsburgh Symphony music director Mariss Jansons.

“I love him,” Lomeli says. “He's invited me twice since that experience to perform with him (with his orchestras in Munich and Amsterdam), but I have been busy and feel bad. When we came offstage after the Verdi, he grabbed my jacket and said, ‘Please take care of yourself. Don't sing heavy and don't get pushed around.' He has a heart of gold.”

Crocetto is making her company and role debut starring as Mimi. She'll sing it again in November with the San Francisco Opera.

“It's a dream role of mine. I normally sing heroines that end up killing themselves for love. This time I get to die of natural causes,” she says. “The music is, I think, the most beautiful music in Puccini's catalog. He's just a genius, and I get to sing all the best music.”

Mimi has an introverted personality but Crocetto says hers is mixed.

“I'm good onstage but have extreme stage fright until I get on stage,” she says. “Then I'm pretty extroverted. I can do the shy thing, too. I do identify with Mimi in Act 1.”

Although her family is from Connecticut, Crocetto grew up in Michigan. She's just moved back to San Francisco, which feels like home. She was an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, which, along with being one of the winners of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she credits with setting her career in motion.

“I had already signed with management before winning the Met Council, but it made it a lot easier for him to get me booked. I'm happy. I have jobs through 2018. It's been an amazing road. I hope it will be a long one.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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