Met’s Vintage La bohème Fresh and Emotionally Compelling

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Stefano Ranzani (conductor). Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 5.4.2014. (JPr)

Vittorio Grigolo Kristine Opolais c Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl
Vittorio Grigolo Kristine Opolais c Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl

Mimì: Kristine Opolais
Musetta: Susanna Phillips
Rodolfo: Vittorio Grigolo
Marcello: Massimo Cavalletti
Schaunard: Patrick Carfizzi
Colline: Oren Gradus
Benoit/Alcindoro: Donald Maxwell


Production:  Franco Zeffirelli
Set Designer:  Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designer:  Peter J Hall
Lighting Designer:  Gil Wechsler
Stage Director: J Knighten Smit
Live in HD Host: Joyce DiDonato


Next season at Covent Garden John Copley’s much-loved realistic production of La bohème will be revived for the last time after 41 years. One day a general manager at the Met may have a similar death wish and try to scrap Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production of La bohème ‘the most performed opera in the history of the Met’ as we were told by the disarmingly affable Live in HD host, Joyce DiDonato. For Royal Opera Richard Jones might go for a ‘Withnail and I’ approach to Puccini’s masterpiece and at the Met any replacement might equally be more ‘up-to-date’; less monumental with sets easier to change by not involving all the Met’s three backstage ‘trucks’ and less than the current roster of 106 extras. That could also prove to be a mistake because both La bohèmes – although hinting at a ballet-style historical recreation – deserve just to be periodically refurbished and outlive us all. Truthfully, who goes to this opera for the production – it is not as though no one knows what is going to happen – they just want to be drawn back to nineteenth-century Paris and immerse themselves in the story of penniless happy-go-lucky bohemians into whose lives – and Rodolfo’s particularly – love, jealously and death comes knocking on the door in the person of the cold-handed Mimì.

Franco Zeffirelli’s sets are hyper-realistic and during one of the intervals the watching cinema audience was shown a seconds-long time lapse montage of the entire stage being prepared and cleared of all three acts. Fascinatingly, it still revealed how over-manned – literally because there are very few women seen – the backstage crew at the Met are with many standing around doing absolutely nothing apparently worthwhile or with a number of people doing something – like spreading the ‘snow’ in Act II – that one person could do on their own. I suspect this is something the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, would like to sort out but I doubt the unions will countenance. The quartet’s garret is hidden amongst the rooftops across which they rather uncertainly lark about at the start of Act III and the Latin Quarter Act II scene has equally detailed – and monumental –  representations of the facades of buildings and the Café Momus’s interior, with all the extras (or ‘supers’ as they are called) mingling with the similarly traditionally costumed chorus – who look if they have come straight off a vintage Christmas card – and filling every available bit of space on the vast stage.

La bohème endures and seemingly can transcend – because of Puccini’s genius – even a less-than-wonderful musical performances because we rarely fail to feel an emotional connection with the characters’ woes because it is such a timeless story. However, for the umpteenth revival (restaged here by J Knighten Smit) and broadcast live to a worldwide cinema audience there was an excellent ensemble of singers, headed by Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais (wife of Andris Nelsons) as Mimì and star tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, as Rodolfo and – in the week when Antonio Pappano bemoaned the lack of Italian singers at Covent Garden – the trio completing the cast, Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello), Oren Gradus (Colline) and Patrick Carfizzi (Schaunard) – seemed to reveal in their interview some significant Italian heritage to match that of Grigolo.

The advertised Mimì was due to be Anita Hartig but she caused panic at the Met by withdrawing because of flu on the morning of the performance. During the interval after Act III Peter Gelb praised Ms Opolais’s performance commenting on how she had sung Butterfly the previous night (another role debut) and ‘now she is doing this incredible historic double that no singer in the history of the Met has done before’. As Joyce DiDonato added ‘In 18 hours she will die twice on this stage … not to give anything way in the fourth act’! Earlier Ms Opolais had revealed ‘First I say “no” … I went to sleep at 5am … and at 7.30 I get the call … I have to do what I have to do and try to be professional and I’m so happy.’ Naturally she said she was ‘not very fresh … I’m ok’ and how it was ‘not easy today’.

It was impossible to tell this as so remarkable and complete was Kristine Opolais’s performance both vocally and dramatically. The evidence of all the work she had to do to get ready to go on stage was evident by her tired-looking panda eyes (that’s ‘raccoon eyes’ to American readers) but that only added to the realism of her performance. She was the sexiest Act I Mimì I have ever seen and it was clear was she meant when she sang the lines translated as ‘I don’t dare say what I’d like to do’ and ‘I’d stay close to you’! She is a compelling stage presence with a near-perfect combination of reticence and sensuality that works splendidly for Mimì whose superficial modesty only barely disguises her deep inner desires. I thought she was a wonderful  Butterfly at Covent Garden in 2011 and her forthcoming appearances as Manon Lescaut with Jonas Kaufmann here in June should be eagerly anticipated. She sang with an expressively rich, rounded, focussed, almost mezzoish sound and made me reminisce about Renata Tebaldi.

Equally Grigolo’s ardent – perhaps initially too eager to please – Rodolfo brought back memories of Carlo Bergonzi, a frequent partner of Ms Tebaldi. This Rodolfo has youthful energy and braggadocio but makes us really care that in a very short time he will win and then lose the woman he genuinely loves and we accept that at the end even if he should find love again, he will never find another like Mimì. We were told how another great Rodolfo and Met favourite, Luciano Pavarotti ,is Vittorio Grigolo’s ‘hero’ and how he studied the role with him. He said ‘When I sing it I really feel his presence.’ The Italian sun heard in Grigolo’s voice and its winning lyricism, as well as, his nuanced and thoughtful phrasing, was pure Pavarotti and he did his mentor proud. There was a powerful – and totally believable – chemistry between Grigolo and Ms Opolais from their resplendent ‘O soave fanciulla’ onwards right up until the last few minutes where everyone tried too hard not to look at the dead Mimì and she was shown in close-up still breathing!

The twisted antics of the on-off lovers Musetta and Marcello came across strongly through the performances of Massimo Cavaletti and Susanna Philips as Marcello and Musetta. Ms Philips gave Musetta with a rounded, multi-faceted personality and she is not just a bad women capable of doing some good deeds. She was coquettish and comical, singing so naturally that it allowed her winning personality to radiate through the music, especially of course, in ‘Quando me’n vo’. We totally ‘buy into’ why Cavaletti’s hot-headed Marcello loves her, we accept she is a bit impetuous but does have a compassionate side that will make her care for Mimì when she discovers she is dying.

Patrick Carfizzi was a robust and personable Schaunard but Oren Gradus was a rather stiff Colline and his voice – somewhat between baritone and bass – lacked the resonant depths needed for his ‘Coat Aria’. The veteran Donald Maxwell repeated his familiar eye-catching vignettes as Benoit and Alcindoro. Obviously we are hearing everything through microphones and loudspeakers so in the theatre it might not have been exactly as we heard it That applies equally to Stefano Ranzani’s forthright, warm and colourful account of the score from his reliable orchestra that never seemed to indulge his singers – not even his last minute replacement – at the expense of true feeling and dramatic veracity.

Barbara Willis Sweete’s dependable direction for live cinema solved all the problems of locating the principals on stage that might be a problem in Act II but fully justified Peter Gelb’s assertion (when introducing the new season of broadcasts for 2014-15) that a ‘performance that is nuanced and believable, is designed to work for the theatre and it then also works on camera.’ Rarely has that been shown better than by this La bohème – an opera I have seen innumerable times but has rarely seemed as fresh and emotionally compelling as this was.

Jim Pritchard

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