One had to wonder, in the near full-house at a Columbus Day performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s venerable “La Bohème,” how many in the audience didn’t get to Paris this summer.
Or perhaps ever?
And how perfect to see this “La Bohème” on an unseasonably warm, humid night — that indeed cried out for a café table outside, to watch people enjoying this last gasp of heat before – as in the opera – winter inevitably comes.
I for one had visited Paris recently, and yet the magic of the opera, that famed Franco Zeffirelli production, was irresistible. Could anything even be done to make that magic…not work?
Doubt it. But that said, just how was the Met’s Paris, Cafe Momus, our beloved Bohemians last night?
First, the production itself — a masterpiece, traditional in all the good ways — functioned like the well-oiled machine that the Met, with its demanding schedule, seems to take in its stride.
It’s no exaggeration to say in this production, the Met puts “City of Light” on stage. (And how warming it must be to take it all in when those January winds rip through and around Lincoln Center).
Dating from 1981, the production is certainly aged.
But perhaps one best compare it to wine. It might just be getting better and it is interesting to remember that the Met’s first production, which featured the first of its 1308 Bohemes, lasted until 1952.
But what of the bohemians themselves, the characters summoned by librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger and Pucccini himself?
For many, maybe all, the night probably belonged to Angel Blue…
An Angel for Mimì
The role of Mimì is Angel Blue’s Met’s debut. To step into such an iconic task, an equally iconic production, with all the memories of performances and recordings past is undeniably daunting.
But from her entrance, Angel Blue commanded the garret. She conveyed Mimi’s fragile state while producing a ringing, shimmering tone that grew to fill the mammoth theater with both the power and plaintiveness of the character.
Her performance of “Mi chiamano Mimi” was sweet in a way that even one overly familiar with this great operatic moment could hear it anew.
In short, what a voice.
And when she joined tenor Dmytro Popov as Rodolfo in their end of act duet, “O soave fanciulla” it was a Puccini moment, an opera moment, that opera lovers dream of.
What was especially interesting, besides that amazing voice of Angel Blue, was that — knowing full well what we are building to, act by act, from the café to snowflakes falling to the muff rolling to the ground — her acting and singing created suspense.
I am sure I was not alone in hoping she tackles more Puccini heroines at the Met in the very near future.
A True Band of Bohemians
Popov, while rising to meet the power of his Mimì, also was key to creating the air of bonhomie amidst his other struggling, starving artists. He balanced the demands of joining Mimì in launching what will be such a rocky love affair, with the bantering and playing with his mates in the draughty garret.
And I doubt I have seen a “Bohème” where the play of that quartet of artists felt as light and funny as it did on this night. While revivals probably get some rehearsal, it’s remarkable to view the physicality and ease the four – Colline, Schaunard and Marcello, along with their lovelorn brother-in-art Rodolfo – managed.
There was no sense of waiting for the Mimi-Rodolfo scenes. This quartet was too much fun to watch.
Vocally everything was all one could wish, especially Lucas Meachen’s Marcello, a pillar of the tale both vocally and dramatically. He matches Musetta perfectly at the buzzy Café Momus. His concern for Mimì in Act IV givesthose momentst a moving realism.
Schaunard’s (Duncan Rock, also debuting) bidding his coat farewell was appropriately touching, the goodbye beautifully sung.
As for our other shining diva? Amidst the stage bursting with marching soldiers, children, a horse and cart — the café itself !– Brigitta Kele’s Musetta comically and vocally shined like a star. Watching her reconnect with the Marcello — a match for her vocally and physically – I felt I could watch the whole act all over again.
And that, in opera, is high praise.
Before leaving the band of bohemians, it is still worth mentioning how great it is to see Paul Plishka in two comic roles. He has been a pillar of the Met from my earliest days and made both Benoit and Alcindoro stand out – again – on a stage where Paris seems to be bursting from every street corner.
Another – and Impressive – Debut
Maestro Alexander Soddy is also making his Met debut with this revival. The Music director at Mannheim’s National Theater, Soddy’s background includes a broad range of the repertoire, from “Aida” to “Die Zauberflöte.”
But with changes to the orchestral leadership coming soon, with new musical director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, I wanted to pay special attention as well to the Met orchestra under Soddy’s baton.
The first thing I noticed was that the ensemble matched the sense of fun and play in Act one among the artists, and the conducting brought out a engaging liveliness. The music flowed, strings shimmered, intriguing details heightened.
And when darker, romantic elements begin to enter the first act, as the candle goes out and Mimì can’t find the key secretly pocketed by Rodolfo, the orchestra played with a sense of romantic suspense, the tension building.
Most notable — for a score that is so familiar that each note can seem inevitable, and so familiar — Soddy brought details out that added to the vibrancy – and, ironically freshness – of the whole production.
The chorus, under the direction of Donald Plaumbo, as usual was excellent; the ensemble easily deserved its own curtain call. The group was the voice, the people of Paris.
Having finished experiencing this production made me think of Samuel Johnson’s quip, referring to the great city of London…which I paraphrase here:
“If someone is tired of La Boheme, they are indeed tired of life.”
And that certainly would be the case for this remarkable performance.