Spectators who can tear themselves away from the beauty of the voices in the Minnesota Opera's latest revival of "La Bohème" -- Giacomo Puccini's melodious, ebullient, nostalgia-steeped evocation of Parisian counterculture in the 1830's -- may sense an inconsistency at the heart of the show.
Justin Way, the young Australian engaged to "reimagine" the company's 1996 "Bohème" production, originally directed by Eric Simonson, doesn't share Simonson's austere (and somewhat dated) agenda. And while Way's costumer, Jennifer Caprio, has been able to spruce up Karin Kopischke's deliberately tatty threads, his designer, Marcus Dilliard, can't do much about Robert Brill's drab sets, which, with their somber grays and confined spaces -- this is not Gene Kelly's Paris -- aim to de-romanticize Bohemia, suggesting that the vaunted freedom and frivolity of its denizens came at a terrible price.
The result, not uncommon with operatic recyclings, is a modest identity crisis, with production elements sometimes pitted against each other. But it's mainly between the acts that this tension registers; with the curtain up, the music is paramount. And what music! Puccini fuses Italian fire with French grace; he can turn a trivial scrap of dialogue into a meltingly lyric moment. "Bohème" moves like the wind; it's one of the few repertory operas that should have been longer.
Foremost among the opening-night cast -- I haven't heard the alternates -- is the splendid James Valenti, whose Rodolfo, more poet than tenor, combines adult passion with boyish élan. (His clowning is, for once, convincing.) At full throttle, he sounds thrilling, with no hint of strain. Yet he can also sing with compelling intimacy, coloring his words arrestingly.
Anoka native Ellie Dehn, her innocence touched with guile, is a radiant Mimi; hers is a voice of enveloping warmth and richness. In her death scene, played with artful simplicity, more than one tear rolled down my hardened critical cheek.
Hyung Yun's abundant baritone and explosive physicality make him a vivid Marcello. Karin Wolverton is that rare thing, a believable Musetta, integrating the calculated coquetry of the operetta-like Act 2 with the compassion of the pathos-filled Act 4. Jonathan Kimple's Colline bids farewell to his overcoat with mingled irony and sadness; Jeffrey Madison is an endearing Schaunard. Conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, who returns in next month's "Salome," captures the score's sparkle and, even more, its glow; orchestra and singers often breathe in unison.