Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: La Bohème, Spring Cast

Quinn Kelsey & Aleksandra Kurzak Shine in Revival of Puccini’s Masterpiece

By Chris Ruel
(Credit: Evan Zimmerman)

Met audiences love “La Bohème.” The company has staged the opera 1,356 times over the past 122 years and has presented the Zeffirelli production for the last 40. The years-long affair with Puccini’s story of Parisian bohemians centers on one of the most potent motivating forces in our lives: love, and we like to see romance play out on stage and screen. Add a tragic ending that chokes us up no matter how many times we’ve seen it, and you’ve got a hit.

But so many operas cover the same ground; the tragic love story is a trope, so how does “Bohème” continue to strike a chord with audiences? Here are my thoughts. The story is straightforward, the music is stunning, with takeaway number after takeaway number, and it’s an ensemble piece with captivating characters. “Bohème” has all the ingredients needed for a hit show.

Puccini and librettists Giacosa and Illica knew how to lead an audience to a gut-punch conclusion. No one’s immune from “Bohème’s” charm and tragedy. Vocalists, no matter times they’ve performed it; opera-buffs, no matter how many times they’ve seen it; and newcomers, whose first opera experience is often “La Bohème,” all embrace and adore it.

When “Bohème” debuted in 1896 at Teatro Regio in Turin, reviews were mixed, with Acts one and four being well-received by the public, while the middle Acts were not so much. The modest reception didn’t stop the opera from gaining massive traction. Between 1898 and 1951, Paris’ Opéra-Comique mounted the production 1,000 times.

The May 16, 2022, opening of the opera’s third run of the season was a rather staid performance that had some trouble getting off the ground but finished strong. Eun Sun Kim led the Met Orchestra with precision and finesse while partnering with the vocalists who included sopranos Eleonora Buratto (Mimì), tenor Matthew Polenzani (Rodolfo), Aleksandra Kurzak (Musetta), baritones Quinn Kelsey (Marcello), Donald Maxwell (Benoit and Alcindoro), and Iurii Samoilov (Schaunard), and bass-baritone Nicolas Testé. Samoilov hails from Kyiv, Ukraine, and his turn at Schaunard, his Met debut.

Act One: Innocence

Near the close of Act four, as Mimì takes her last breaths, Musetta prays for a miraculous recovery, saying, “Mimì is just like an angel from heaven…” That’s the way I always saw her, and I don’t think the view is off-the-mark. Is Mimì coquettish? Yes. Does she leave Rodolfo? Yes, but neither of those things removes her from the overarching theme of innocence. Living in the background is the audience’s memory of her and Rodolfo’s first meeting, which is genuinely touching and charming, without a hint of ulterior motives.

When Juxtaposed with Mimì, Musetta punctuates the former’s purity. As the opera progresses, Musetta, first seen as someone shallow and vain, affects Mimì, showing her a fresh path out of poverty and influencing her decision to leave Rodolfo for much greener, more lucrative pastures. Mimì’s innocence takes a hit but is not wiped out. Even if it were, the ending would be no less tragic. Consider “Manon Lescaut.” Manon is the antithesis of Mimì, yet her demise in the wastelands of Louisiana is a heart-rending moment on par with that of “Bohème’s” conclusion.

The compartmentalization of women as either innocent angels or temptresses is a trope, and it comes into play in both operas, with “Bohème” having characters that embody both. An aspect I find interesting is how Puccini and his collaborators begin with the trope and then flip the female leads before resolving the story and presenting both as angels.

Quinn Kelsey Takes Charge

As Marcello, Quinn Kelsey caught my attention right from the start. His commanding voice was ready to go right out of the gate and served as a magnet to which I remained attached throughout the opera. In subsequent acts, whether he was interacting with Mimì or Musetta, his sincerity (and frustration at the latter) rang true. His Marcello was funny, endearing, and convincing, exuding chemistry with each of his fellow principals. Among his three friends in the garret, it was he who served as the glue that bound the group together.

Meanwhile, I had a tough time connecting with Matthew Polenzani’s Rodolfo during Act one. I appreciated his interpretation of a confident, good-humored writer, but I felt it hid the inner turmoil and broodiness I’ve seen others bring to the role.

To be fair, Polenzani had to jump in for Yusif Eyvazov, who pulled out because of illness, and the casts for late-season reprises get less time rehearsing as it stands. Moreover, the role isn’t new to Polenzani, but it’s not as prevalent as others in his repertoire. His most recent appearance in the role at the Met was singing Act one alongside Anna Netrebko in the 2019-2020 New Year’s Eve Gala.

Vocally, Polenzani needed time to warm up. His upper register sounded strained, but his warm brassiness in the legato lines came through as the show progressed. “O suave fanciulla” began strong, but when he hit the sustained E at the close of Act one, that strength had dissipated, and the tightness between his note and Eleonora Buratto’s C wasn’t enough, and it lacked noticeable stability.

Buratto’s interpretation of Mimì also included a flicker of playfulness in her initial interactions with Polenzani that kept her from appearing too tragic right off the bat. But the playfulness, combined with the lack of time to gel during rehearsals, was the duo’s Achille’s Heel affecting the chemistry between the characters—a more playful, less tormented Rodolfo playing opposite a more animated Mimì made them too similar.

Of greater concern, except for Kelsey, was the principal’s struggle to cut over the orchestra in Act one. The first Act is a parade of opera hits, yet much went unheard, with the vocal oomph flickering in and out like Mimì’s candle. Then the opposite occurred, and I’ll once more point to the conclusion of “O suave fanciulla.” Puccini marked the final note pianissimo, but Polenzani and Buratto sang full-throated as they faded into the Parisian night. It made little sense dramatically or musically to sing fortissimo, and the strain I mentioned earlier reared its head as both cut their notes shorter than expected after oversinging.

Audiences expect A-list vocalists to fire on all cylinders all the time, but they aren’t superhuman. Though it was opening night, Act one felt more akin to a final dress rehearsal for the two leads, but that feeling subsided by Act three, when Polenzani and Buratto were in much better shape vocally. Yet, they still lacked the chemistry needed to keep me fully engaged until the second half of Act three and the entirety of Act four.

Act Two: Love’s Joy & Madness

Act two of the Zeffirelli production is pure spectacle. The set receives applause every time the curtain goes up and Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter appears—complete with ponies, horses, a stilt walker, and Musetta. The holiday season mirth and slapstick antics of waiters and patrons are always a joy.

Hidden within the fun, foreshadowing is easily missed because of the grand and boisterous nature of the Act. Reading the libretto, the conversation between Mimì and Rodolfo that happens in the background is Hemingway-esque in its construction and tone. With its clipped phrases, we learn of Rodolfo and Mimì’s take on the concept of love, which hints at what’s coming. Rodolfo says he would never forgive Mimì if she behaved like Musetta and that once love is dead, it cannot be revived. Mimì states that selfish love is a dreary affair while repeatedly saying she feels sorry for Musetta. Next time you catch a production, tune into their conversation. It adds a level of depth to one of the most enjoyable Acts in the operatic canon.

The second Act was a pivotal moment in terms of my bonding with the characters. While Musetta takes center stage, she spends much of her time trying to get Marcello’s goat. The interplay between the two—one going about life gaily while the other lives an artist’s life of poverty creates a natural tension, especially when the characters have a romantic tie, but Kurzak and Kelsey had the chemistry I felt was missing in the interactions between Polenzani and Buratto. My focus shifted away from the Mimì/Rodolfo storyline and towards that of Marcello/Musetta—particularly Musetta’s journey from who she was in Act two—shallow, spoiled, and vain—to who she becomes in Act four—warm, caring, self-sacrificial.

I liked Kurzak and Kelsey’s performance because, in the wrong hands, Musetta is often a caricature, and Marcello is just a sidekick. That was far from the case with these two artists. Kurzak appeared to have an absolute blast on stage. Her “Quando m’en vo’” was as luxurious and velvety as it was playful. Act two was all hers—she owned it in every way.

Kelsey’s furious jealousy was humorous as he sat hunched over in his chair at Café Momus, swigging wine from the bottle or stomping about as Kurzak flittered about dumping gallons of gasoline on his passions. But all his actions and exclamations belied what was going on inside his character’s heart (mad love). I ate it up with a spoon.

Act Three: Heartbreak

After the joy of Christmas Eve, the curtain rises on a bleak February dawn at the Barrièr d’Enfer. Snow falls, and the light of the tavern casts an orange glow. Mimì comes looking for Rodolfo and spills her heart to Marcello in what was a well-played, extremely poignant Act, with Kelsey once more moving into the foreground, this time showing a softer and gentler version of the volatile Marcello. After doing his utmost to comfort Mimì, who claims Rodolfo has wrecked everything with his constant suspicion and jealousy. Enter Rodolfo, who explains Mimì isn’t just sick but dying. Mimì hides when Rodolfo exits but overhears everything before revealing herself.

The vocal and character issues apparent in the first Act vanished. Buratto’s strength broke through, and both her “O buon Marcello” was sung with such pathos that I felt the Mimì I missed had returned. Here was the suffering Mimì, the innocent Mimì, heartbroken and ripped apart by the turn of events.

Earlier, I mentioned how a lighter take on Mimì and Rodolfo didn’t click with me. The happy yet tumultuous relationship between Musetta and Marcello should stand in stark contrast to the tragedy-soaked link between Mimì and Rodolfo, but the damage was done—and this Act solidified Kelsey as the evening’s standout, alongside Kurzak. My read on Kelsey is that he’s the type of artist who naturally brings out the best in his co-stars, and it was Buratto who got a lift from being on stage alone with Kelsey for most of the Act. I can say Kelsey seemed to have the same effect on Polenzani, whose interaction with baritone released the persona of a tortured writer in love.

In “Marcello, finalmente!” Polenzani climbed well above the staff—into the A, B flat, and C range, and he did it without strain or tightness, letting his passion come to the foreground with strong singing that sliced through the orchestra—a huge shift from Act one. I can say the same regarding “Mimì è tanto malata.”

Mimì’s farewell arietta “Donde lieta uscì,” which hangs around the middle register, with a few exceptions, sat naturally in Buratto’s voice, and, as with Polenzani, the issues present in Act one dissipated; her voice had rejuvenated. She was clearly heard and had taken ownership of the doomed character in voice and action.

Act Four: Tragedy

Crying during the final Act is unavoidable. Puccini and his librettists set the Act up with humor as Marcello struggles to paint and Rodolfo to write. Dancing and a mock sword fight ensues after Schaunard and Colline return with a few loaves of bread and some herring. Marcello has heard little about Musetta and Rodolfo about Mimì until Marcello reveals he saw her dressed to the nines and riding in a carriage with her viscount. Musetta and Mimì have switched places; it is now Mimì who revels in riches. But Mimì’s life of luxury is short-lived, just as she was not long for this world.

True character arcs can be difficult to uncover in more labyrinthine librettos, which “Bohème” is not. Kurzak tapped into Musetta’s progression as a character and highlighted it. Once she rushes into the garret and tells the guys Mimì’s in terrible shape and has accompanied her to the garret, I immediately noted the shift. Kurzak’s choked-up (and believable) presentation of “C’è Mimi” was crushing, and as Kelsey did with Burtato, Kurzak did with Polenzani. The pain and anguish Kurzak displayed ramped up the tenor’s emotion, egging him on to reach the apex of tragedy in the largo sostenuto finale. “Bohème” and the audience deserve nothing less.

Colline’s coat song, “Vecchia zimarra,” always struck me as odd. As devastation creeps ever closer, he sings about selling his coat. What on earth? I wished they would cut it for so long because it feels so incongruous. But I took a step back and went into this performance, desperate to catch what it was I didn’t get about the scene. Taken alone, it is ludicrous, but when viewed as part of the whole tableau of self-sacrifice exemplified by Musetta giving up her expensive earrings for a muff to warm Mimì’s icy hands, it clicked into place. Colline is impoverished, and for him to be without a coat is far more costly than Musetta giving up her jewelry. Musetta—the woman about town who lived to woo money from the well-heeled, had changed, and it’s she who sets an example to all in the decrepit apartment.

As Colline, Nicolas Testé performed “Vecchia zimarra” with a gentle touch, It’s a role the bass-baritone has sung at the Met before, and his approach changed my attitude toward the number, aiding my understanding of the significance of the character’s sacrifice.

Iurii Samoilov appeared at home on the big stage in his Met debut. He’s an experienced singer, having performed principal roles at Europe’s most respected houses. While Schaunard gets short-shrift with solos, he’s the first to recognize that Musetta has died before their eyes and breaks the news to Marcello. Cue the tears.

In the dual role of Benoit and Alcindoro, Donald Maxwell has a beautiful sense of comedic timing, and his interactions with his rent-delinquent tenants were amusing as ever, as was his flummoxed Alcindoro trying to rein in the wild Musetta at Café Momus.

I consider Puccini the king of melody and memorable tunes. He ties the musical palette directly to the story, leaving no question about what’s happening in the story. The intentionality of the infused emotion, be it quiet tenderness, raucous humor, or soul-crushing tragedy, always rises to the top. His knack for taking the joyful motifs that appear earlier in the opera and reminding the audience of lost innocence or simply using them in a different context later on is a brilliant form of storytelling. Under Eun Sun Kim’s direction, the Met Orchestra brought these moments to the forefront.

Though a little tenuous at first, the performance grew increasingly better throughout the evening and finished perfectly. It will surely delight fans (and hopefully, create some new ones) in the penultimate days of the Met’s 2021-22 season.


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