L.A. Opera’s presentation of La Bohème at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday had all the buzz and feel of an opening-night spectacle, but it was actually just the penultimate edition in a string of eight performances that started in May.

The house was full with a largely younger crowd, and many women in the audience were decked out in dramatic, floor-length ballroom gowns. Most of the members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra also were dressed formally, the women in elegant black cocktail dresses, the men in black suits, white shirts and black bow ties.

Much of the excitement centered on the relatively young, shaggy-haired conductor, who was nattily attired in a black tuxedo with long tails and a white bow tie. Although Gustavo Dudamel has spent much of the past decade just down the street at Disney Hall — reinvigorating the L.A. Philharmonic with such a passionate sense of adventure that he largely inspired the popular television series Mozart in the Jungle — he had never conducted the L.A. Opera Orchestra until he made his debut Friday night.

Guest Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci guided the house band for the previous six performances of La Bohème, and she was especially nuanced in restraining the more sentimental impulses of composer Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera about a gang of young, impoverished artists struggling to make their way in 19th-century Paris. Resisting the urge to give in to crowd-pleasing bombast, Scappucci showed particular care and finesse in summoning forth the softer, gentler sections of the score.

With only limited time for rehearsal and an orchestra that was already locked into Scappucci’s rhythms, there wasn’t much opportunity for Dudamel to radically change the arrangements, but the charismatic 35-year-old Venezuelan conductor nonetheless put his distinctive stamp on La Bohème Friday night. (He also conducted the final performance of the opera on Sunday afternoon.)

Dudamel climbed into the narrow perch above the Chandler’s orchestra pit to rapturous cheers and quickly got to work. Although he didn’t have as much room as he usually has at Disney Hall, the conductor was still animated and expressive, his hands fluttering gracefully and demonstratively as he drew circles in the air, and at times he even hopped in place to exhort the orchestra onward.

Gustavo Dudamel; Credit: Photo by Vern Evans

Gustavo Dudamel; Credit: Photo by Vern Evans

Under Dudamel’s direction, the dynamic range between the louder and quieter passages was more pronounced. The pace was sprightly, the horns were more prominent, and the harp was plucked clearly and vibrantly. In the first act, a couple of secondary singers seemed a hair off from the band, and sometimes they were overwhelmed by the majestic swell of the orchestra, but before long everyone was working together seamlessly. The large chorus, directed by Grant Gershon, sounded especially rich and multilayered.

Yet for all the star power in the conductor’s booth, the evening ultimately belonged to the two lead singers. As the poet Rodolfo, Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang impressed with a powerfully soaring voice, and he exuded a properly heroic attitude. The Georgian coloratura soprano Nino Machaidze was beguiling as the doomed heroine Mimi, revealing a crystalline voice that was both lulling and entrancing. At times, when the duo engaged in achingly bittersweet harmonies, Machaidze’s voice would vault above Chang’s dramatically into an otherworldly ethereality that was chillingly beautiful.

Pointing at the singers and signaling them for their cues, Dudamel would sometimes tilt his head and learn forward as if in empathetic commiseration. Soprano Janai Brugger also was charming as the alluring and untamable Musetta. Peter Kazaras directed the action with aplomb, and Gerard Howland’s elaborate sets and Herbert Ross’ cinematic production convincingly evoked a romanticized version of Parisian street life.

La Bohème was the last major production of L.A. Opera’s Puccini-themed current season; the local company is about to present the world premiere of David Lang and Mark Dion’s macabre opera Anatomy Theater on Thursday, June 16, as part of its ongoing series of experimental works at REDCAT. After a season largely devoted to popular, classic operas, L.A. Opera kicks off its upcoming season in September with potentially weightier and more challenging material, starting with an operatic reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Longtime opera fanatic Dudamel, meanwhile, is about to relocate L.A. Phil from Disney Hall to the summer season at Hollywood Bowl, where he’ll lead a concert presentation of Puccini’s momentous Tosca in July.

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