La Boheme at Lyric Opera Chicago Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography

This new Lyric Opera coproduction—with Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Teatro Real Madrid—of La Bohème looks like it’s trying to make the well-worn favorite fresh for both first-timers and those who’ve seen it before. There’s no startling change in time or place—we’re still in 19th-century Paris—but the production is nonetheless jarring, drenched in cold white light that’s the opposite of the intimate candle glow so central to this story of scrappy, impoverished, and ultimately tragic young love. Except for the second act, which is set in a striking Latin Quarter shopping arcade and a cafe, it unfolds in a stark environment with heavy-handed stage direction by Richard Jones that makes every dated, sexist point in what’s always been a flimsy script (for a moving plot) worse. The boys-who-will-be-boys scrawl stick figures and boobs on their garret walls and their freewheeling friend Musetta drops her underpants.

But it also has the important stuff: Puccini’s music that soars directly to your heart, played by the Lyric Opera orchestra under guest conductor Domingo Hindoyan; plus the mighty Lyric Opera chorus, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and a winning young cast, including a pair of leads with thrilling voices that are deeper and richer than the typical casting would provide. In this, tenor Michael Fabiano as the poet Rodolfo and soprano Maria Agresta as his ill-fated soul mate, Mimì, are perfectly, memorably matched. Zachary Nelson is fine as Rodolpho’s pal Marcello, and Danielle de Niese, who can overcome anything, manages to triumph as Musetta.   v