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REVIEW: 'La Boheme' makes glorious Paramount debut for CR Opera Theatre

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:51 pm   ::  



CEDAR RAPIDS -- "La Boheme" is the perfect event for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre's debut at the Paramount Theatre.

Not only is it one of the world's best-loved operas, but the renovated stage is the right size to showcase more than 100 voices on multilevel scenery and nearly 50 stellar Orchestra Iowa musicians in the expanded pit below.

I saw the Opera Theatre's 2002 production of "La Boheme" at the 500-seat Theatre Cedar Rapids, and the trade-off is that with the 1,700-seat Paramount, you lose a measure of intimacy with the characters, but you gain a visual spectacle that makes for a fine evening's entertainment.

It's the story and haunting melodies that inspired Broadway's smash hit "Rent," both exploring the vibrant, troubling, tragic world of starving young artists trying to live out their passions amid a dire poverty that exacts the most harsh physical and emotional tolls. "La Boheme" is set in 1830s Paris, while "Rent" is set 150 years later in New York's bohemian East Village.

Shouts of "bravo" rang through the Paramount on Friday's opening night (1/18/13) as many of the 1,200 audience members rose to their feet in appreciation of the herculean efforts and talent it took to mount such a lavish production. It repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday (1/20/13). A few seats are available on the main floor and the back of the first balcony.

The details


The orchestra, under the expert artistic direction of Daniel Kleinknecht, is always wonderful, but is especially masterful interpreting Giacomo Puccini's music that plumbs the depths and heights of human emotions. At times, however, the intensity of instrumental sound buried the solo and small ensemble vocals, especially when the singers were in their lower registers.

I fully understand the purist viewpoint of presenting the vocalists without amplification, but the trade-off in a large venue is that you're bound to miss nuances, and that's a shame. All of these singers are fine artists, but when one voice tries to rise above 50 instruments, sheer numbers are going to win at least part of the time.

The two most sonorous voices, however, rose mightily every time. Philip Torre and Meredith Hansen as former lovers Marcello and Musetta own every scene in which they spar. Their big voices and big personalities fill the stage with excitement and energy.

Seldom have I heard an instrument as resonant and powerful as Torre's. He is simply a sound and sight to behold as the painter who has lost his flirty, vampish love, Musetta, to a wealthy old suitor, Alcindoro.

John Muriello from the University of Iowa voice faculty, a favorite with the Opera Theatre and its fans, is his always-delightful self in the comic character roles of the wealthy suitor in the second act and the artists' demanding, drunken landlord in the first act.

The focus of the story is the ebbing and flowing relationship of seamstress Mimi and poet Rodolpho. Erica Strauss and Eric Barry are simply heartbreaking in their passion and pathos.

Special nods go to stage director Stanley M. Garner for guiding not only the small, quiet moments, but the cast of thousands. as well, in the second act's swirling street scene full of lively antics, including a marching band from Jefferson High School and singers of all ages from the Corridor.

And every step of the way, all of the performers are enveloped in sublime scenery by Rob Sunderman, lively and moody lighting by Scott Olinger and the most detailed, magnificent costumes by Janie Westendorf.

Bravo, indeed.

Related: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre staging a show for all seasons of love

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