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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Opera Review: At Long Last: La bohème

OK. Confession time.

Up until last night, I had never seen the Metropolitan Opera's legendary Franco Zeffirelli production of La bohème.
Where's Rodolfo? Act II of La bohème.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
The one with one hundred and twenty-five supernumeraries onstage in the second act, a realistic snowfall in the third. The one from Moonstruck. The most successful opera production in Met history, and the longest-running of all the overbaked, overstuffed Zeffirelli set-pieces that were a hallmark of the house in the 1980s.

Maybe it was simple critical snobbery. Maybe I'd seen La bohème too many times as a kid, at subscription performances at the New York City Opera next door. Or maybe I was just stubborn, damnit, having sat through lousy Zeff productions of Carmen and La Traviata--the latter in two different stagings.

Whatever the reason, I saw "the show" last night.

First, the singers. The Met had a fresh, young cast for the February 7 performance, featuring the passionate, well-acted Mimì of soprano Maija Kovalevska. She was ably paired with tenor Piotr Beczala, (a singer new to me) but one who made a good impression as an ardent Rodolfo. Susanna Phillips soared through Musetta's Waltz, although the draggy tempos adopted by Marco Armiliato in the pit made this famous number sound as if it were being performed in slow motion.

Next: the set. Act II still features a nearly full-sized hommage to the Latin Quarter of Paris, a split-level set with a street, a staircase and rolling pushcarts. The Met  breaks out the livestock: a donkey for Parpignol's toy-cart and a white carriage horse pulling Musetta onstage. All this ricketa-racketa (not to mention the 125 milling extras) makes it hard to figure out who is actually singing, or even where the Cafe Momus is (it's behind the pushcarts, and is revealed once they're wheeled off.) But the great moment is during Musetta's Waltz when all of Paris freezes still to listen to the singer carry off her aria. It is a brilliant, theatrical moment, and a highlight of the show.

Available: Studio, light, airy, views. Upper W. Side nr. Linc. Ctr. Call  M. Benoit at (212) 362-6000.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Act III features the famous snowstorm at the gates of Paris. (It's rumored that cast members engage in "snowball fights" before the curtain rises, to "winterize" their costumes.) This meteorological effect makes the streets of Paris look like the city is actually Brooklyn under Mike Bloomberg. That said, the Met stage crew's snow removal skills far outstrip those of New York's Department of Sanitation.

The best set remains that garrett, (Act I, IV) the highest, crummiest attic in all of Paris. Despite the protestations of the landlord (M. Benoit), this cramped space can hardly support a painter, a poet, a philosopher and a musician. When Marcello sings "Nulla! O poveria!" ("There is nothing in the house--only poverty") the point is made, despite Mr. Zeffirelli's excess.

As with good performances of this iconic opera, the best stuff was saved for the last act. As the clowning of the four Bohemians gave way to tragedy, Puccini's romantic themes from the first act were reprised. Colline's "Vecchio zimarra" (sung by the Chinese bass Shenyang) broke the heart. The final duet between Rodolfo and Mimì dwarfed Mr. Zeffirelli's Parisian rooftops, pulling the listener into that tiny garrett and the bond between these two iconic characters. Ms. Kovalevsky and Mr. Beczala served the moment admirably. The crashing chords of her cough were just as they should be: jarring. And her death was devastating. It's La bohème. You know what's coming. But in the hands of these fine singers, they made it hurt.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.