Mary Dunleavy and Sean Panikkar bask in love’s warm glow in Fort Worth Opera’s production of La Bohème.
Mary Dunleavy and Sean Panikkar bask in love’s warm glow in Fort Worth Opera’s production of La Bohème.

There was no pressure for Sean Panikkar Saturday night –– after all, he was just singing the same role that Placido Domingo and Stephen Costello sang here before, just as their careers were taking off. But the Sri Lankan tenor thrived as Rodolfo in Fort Worth Opera’s production of La Bohème. And the rest of the cast was almost as impressive.

Whether the tall, handsome Panikkar will have the kind of success enjoyed by Domingo and Costello is anyone’s guess, but he’s off to a promising start. In his strong portrayal of the unhappy poet, his voice was fresh and robust and flowed evenly through the whole range. It started out lacking heft, which may have been due to nerves, but filled out as the evening progressed. Panikkar used it with sensitive nuances that brought added dimension to the role, and he also had an easy stage presence that drew you into the drama.

Commanding a bright, muscular voice that can spin out a lovely pianissimo when called for, Metropolitan Opera soprano Mary Dunleavy sang Mimi, the poor girl who lives alone in the same battered rooming house and takes in sewing to make a living. She didn’t always convince as the vulnerable, sickly creature, and at times the positive way she held herself, and the power of her singing, seemed at odds with the character’s gentle nature. Even on her deathbed Dunleavy didn’t entirely rein in the enormous sound. I saw her more as a vibrant Tosca or even an imposing Turandot, two beefy Puccini roles that she seems destined to sing. However, she reached many in the audience and received a generous response at her curtain calls.

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Rodolfo’s three friends –– Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline –– were handsomely sung by baritones Wes Mason and John Boehr and bass Derrick Parker. Their camaraderie seemed genuine and was touching as they made the most of their limited funds and shared what they had. Mason and Parker have been heard here before, Mason as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls and Parker as Alidoro in FWO’s remarkable production of Rosini’s Cinderella four years ago. He also sang Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor in 2008.

Soprano Rosa Betancourt, singing Musetta, was a bit heavy-handed as the coquette in the Café Momus scene and wasn’t helped by conductor Joe Illick’s slow tempo in the famous waltz, which made her sound and look more deliberate than sparkling. (Think Zsa Zsa Gabor in her heyday as the ideal model.) She was more effective in the last act as the devoted friend of a dying Mimi.

David Lefkowich staged FWO’s impressive Il Trovatore in 2011 and returned to direct La Bohème with loving detail. The crowd scenes in the second act seemed ragged –– they were also the weakest moments in Trovatore –– but the intimate moments with the principals were jewels: well thought out and seamlessly acted.

In the pit, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra sounded healthy and well prepared under Illick’s direction. I wish the tempo had been a little faster for Mimi’s first-act response to Rodolfo –– “mi chiamano Mimi” –– as well as Musetta’s waltz, but everything else moved along nicely.

The scenery by R. Keith Brumley and costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan were attractive, and Chad R. Jung’s lighting worked well except in the first act, which didn’t bring nightfall early enough to dim the room as Mimi and Rodolfo looked on the floor for her key. Anyone could have found it in that lighting without bending over, but fortunately Rodolfo grabbed it up before the girl could see it.

FWO general director Darren Woods’ unique position as a juror of the Metropolitan Opera’s national auditions and stage director each summer of the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York, a workshop for young singers, allows him to bring some of the best new talent to Fort Worth. His emphasis on new works as well as old has already made the festival format, started seven years ago, an important regional destination for opera lovers.



La Bohème

Thru May 3 at Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $25-215. 817-731-0833.