Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: La Bohème
Ailyn Pérez, Michael Fabiano Shine Amidst Star Cast In Refreshing Look At Zeffirelli’s Storied ProductionBy David Salazar
Puccini’s “La Bohème” was revived on Thursday, Nov. 29 with a cast of predominantly American stars in Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic production.
There isn’t much to remark about the production that hasn’t already said, though it must be noted that the singers, in conjunction with revival stage director J. Knighten Smit did seem to attempt some new staging at different junctures of the production. Often the challenge with something this well-known is that you can almost anticipate every move onstage if you’ve seen it enough. And for the most part, a typical revival of this “Bohème” features predictable touches to major moments.
Switching It Up
Switching things up refreshes moments, though it can also be a bit hit or miss. For example, seeing Mimì and Rodolfo sit on the bench at the close of Act three with snow coming down never really made sense. She’s sick after all and it must be freezing. So to see the curtain come down and the two characters standing, likely heading somewhere else, was a subtle but strong touch.
On the other hand, the choice of having Mimì stand up, rush to the window and point to it at the climax of “il primo sol è mio” in her Act one aria was a bit distracting and undercut the climax of this glorious passage a bit. Ditto for the interplay between Marcelo and Musetta at the end where she rejected his hug and then jumped into his arms at the end. It’s a nice moment for the two, but it also undercuts the main tragedy of Mimì’s death a bit by shifting our focus to the other two lovers.
Of course, once you see the actors trying new things, they have your full attention and make you wonder about what else they might do.
It also helps that the cast was in strong vocal form overall.
Two Stars Reunite
Soprano Ailyn Pérez scored a massive success with this role a couple of seasons ago, and her performance on Thursday was reminiscent of that earlier showcase. From her first entrance, her Mimì, though ill, is a woman with vitality. She might be very sick, but this Mimì has chosen to enjoy her life.
At the close of Act two in this production, we often see images of Mimì coughing and struggling in the midst of the festivities. It’s a powerful counterpoint and foreshadowing of the impending tragedy. While Pérez’s Mimì does have that moment of weakness, she gets over it quickly and continues enjoying the parade; nothing is bringing her down.
She comes in like a breath of fresh air into the garret, her sound bright and opulent. This was particularly present throughout “Mi Chiamano Mimì,” the aria again showing a woman happy with her life and with no shame. There is no sense of shyness, Pérez more focused on a vibrant tone; she even placed emphasis on a few grace notes to add to the energetic portrayal on “ma quando vien lo sgelo.” Even her subtle accents on “Mimì” and “Lucia” suggested a sense of pride in who she is. She indulged in the high A natural “di primavera,” lavishing it with a glorious crescendo into the subsequent high G sharp (she did the same on the return of the phrase at the close of the aria) and the overall effect was one of joie de vivire.
Seeing this portrayal of exuberance allowed Pérez a strong starting place for the subsequent arc. From here on out, her voice would lose that brightness, a darker hue replacing it in the third Act until her singing was light and disembodied in the fourth Act, the phrases shorter and detached to express the dying soul.
And through it all, the soprano displayed a sense of vocal assurance, her sound blossoming in climactic passages throughout Act three. Her singing in “Rodolfo m’ama e mi fugge” was impassioned and spell-binding. Her build to the high A flat “ahime” at the peak of the opening passage was captivating and her waves of sound overwhelmed you with their intensity, the soprano seemingly finding more vocal gears throughout the passage. Pérez’s Mimì isn’t only a fresh and intelligent portrayal, a vocally intense one.
Tenor Michael Fabiano has sung this role over the past few seasons, but his performance with Pérez back in 2016-17 is likely one of his finest to date. This one came close. The tenor’s voice did take some time to warm up as his higher range sounded a bit dry in the first Act (particularly in the higher passages of “Che Gelida Manina”), but by Act three, it was warmer and brighter.
That’s not to say that his singing to that point didn’t possess strong qualities. His chemistry with Pérez was palpable and their flirtatious approach to the scene in Act one was pleasant and fun to witness. He has a large instrument that fills the house and it is supplemented by truly strong diction, making it easy to get involved with his characterization of Rodolfo as a wild, careless young man. The brightness of his sound furthers this feeling of a restless youth and Fabiano’s own risk-taking with phrasing only adds to the excitement. His opening phrases of “O soave fanciulla” were forward-driving and ardent, adding sensual charge to the love duet that was only amplified with Pérez’s equally potent entrance and the union of their two voices giving off the feeling of abandon to the moment.
Fabiano’s “Mimì è tanta malata” was probably his finest moment in the entire evening as the tenor’s voice really drove for the climaxes throughout the passage, the high notes expressing Rodolfo’s anguish and torment with their forcefulness. His piano singing in the subsequent quartet “Dunque è propio finita,” was also superlative, particularly the disembodied quality of his high A flat on “alla stagione dei for.” Once again, Fabiano and Pérez displayed an incredible ability to simply meld their voices together as one throughout, every musical gesture and breath on point.
The flirtatious nature of parts of “Sono andati” was the perfect counterpoint for the opera’s final moments where Fabiano undeniably ripped your heart apart with his proclamations of “Mimì,” his voice soaring on the high G sharps; the second he held particularly long and then transformed it into visceral weeping. Few tenors give themselves over to their roles quite the way Fabiano does and his intensity was palpable throughout the evening.
Big Wins For Casting Directors
Soprano Angel Blue’s arrival in the second Act provided a charged shift of energy as she seemed to be on a mission to have as much fun as possible. Musetta, as presented in Zeffirelli’s production, often comes off as a rambunctious child. Following the stage directions left behind, there isn’t really any way to change this perception when the character is throwing plates on the ground and throwing a tantrum.
Blue took the hand she was dealt and just upped the ante that much more. Her Musetta came off as a spoiled brat in that second Act, but it was a blast regardless with the soprano a ball of energy running around her part of the stage. Certain vocal gestures, such as the shout that kicks off the ensemble reprise of “Quando m’en vo” were three shouts instead of a downward glissando, the unpredictability and risk-taking of the soprano added excitement to the moment. The simple action of her pulling her dress up to show her foot came off more realistically in this presentation as Alcindoro repeatedly pulled it down; in other iterations, she seems to be playing cat and mouse with his attempts to grab her dress.
Vocally, Blue was also in solid shape. Her voice didn’t sound particularly large in the theater, but it vibrated beautifully. “Quando m’en vo” was elegantly sung, the soprano’s approach more direct with only minimal rubato; it gave it greater sense of vitality and energy instead of a seductive edge. It matched up with her explosive temperament from her entrance. There was a neat sense of precision in her diction throughout the Act three quartet as she exchanged blows with Meachem’s Marcello and their final insults really carried a ton of edge and harshness; it’s often played for laughs, but here there was a seriousness that, while still quite humorous, also expressed hurt. Finally, her decision to sing her “Madonna benedetta in Act four with greater resonance gave the moment a sense of desperation and emphasized the weight of the loss on Musetta.
Lucas Meachem reprised the role that brought him tremendous success a season ago when he was a virtual scene stealer. He was in fine form on Thursday, even if, like Fabiano, he took some time to warm up. His voice didn’t quite have the brilliance in the first Act, but by the time the second Act came around, and specifically his impassioned “Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta,” his baritone was potent and present. But he was even better in the third Act during his exchange with Mimì, Meachem’s singing coalescing perfectly with both Pérez and, later Fabiano. Seeing him go from gentle with Mimì to more direct and forceful as he chided Rodolfo, allowed us to see Marcelo’s intimacy with both in different ways. To top it all off, his final exchange with Blue’s Musetta was quite pointed. His singing in the duet of the final Act was his best, the baritone’s legato simply a joy to take in.
It was a big coup for the person in charge of casting Christian Van Horn alongside Duncan Rock as Colline and Schaunard, respectively, as their differing sounds counterpointed one another rather well. Van Horn, with a graver and darker sound overall, added a sense of earthiness and earnestness to the group. This added potency to his rendition of “Vecchia Zimarra,” the soft but polished legato line creating a sense of intimacy that drew the audience in; it was like going from a wide shot of a scene in a movie to an intense closeup.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rock had a more delicate and brighter timbre that made him the perfect jokester among the quartet of Bohemians. His attempts at dancing in the fourth act were rather poor but added to this sense of clumsiness with which he imbued Schaunard from the get-go.
Not Quite In Control
However, not every component was on point and it seemed that conductor James Gaffigan and the Met Opera Orchestra were under-rehearsed for this run of performances. The orchestra’s sound seemed rather muted, the volume levels seemingly never blossoming fully. It gave off a sense of the ensemble being overly careful in its approach, almost as if conductor and orchestra were trying to figure out the aural balance with the singers.
This was exacerbated by Gaffigan seemingly in more of a reactive mode than being the man fully in charge of the musical proceedings. At almost every single juncture where the orchestra had to double the vocal line, Gaffigan and the ensemble were always behind, often undercutting the singer’s performance. You heard this at the climax of “Donde lieta” and “Sola mi fo il pranzo da me stessa” during “Mi chiamano Mimì.” The orchestra was constantly behind Van Horn during “Vecchia zimarra,” and there was a lack of synchronization between the percussion onstage at the close of Act two and the orchestra, the singers sounding completely lost in their mini-ensemble.
On the whole, it resulted in a lot of sloppiness throughout the night and a sense that cohesiveness had not been achieved during the rehearsal process. One would imagine that with more performances on the way, this will fix itself as the maestro and performers grow more comfortable with one another.
It is with this promise that you can’t help but recommend this run with this cast. This is a true all-star roster and even under adverse musical conditions, they still pulled off an enthralling and emotional performance.