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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Opera Review: The Art is in the Details

The Met revives La bohème...again.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rodolfo (Joseph Calleja) woos Mimì (Maija Kovaleska) in Act I of La bohème.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
At the Metropolitan Opera House, La bohème is as much of a tourist attraction as the Swarovski chandeliers and Marc Chagall murals. Franco Zeffirelli's production of Puccini's opera remains unassailable: an ode to the excesses of that Italian director and the enormous resources mustered by this formidable organization. The lives of these starving artists play out on sprawling, still-handsome sets, that are lovingly rebuilt and repainted for each revival. With its Act II crowd scenes and Act III snowfall, it is easy to forget that  the singing should come first.

At the Met, the sweep and spectacle of this production becomes a launching-point for young singers, and this January run marks the Met debut of Maija Kovaleska as Mimì. She found depth of characterization in the role of the terminally ill seamstress. With conductor Stefano Ranzani choosing slow, almost Wagnerian tempos, their Act I duet unfolded like a natural conversation in the sweetest of musical terms. Her "Mi chiamino Mimì" started softly and gained power and momentum. This paid dividends in the finale, when memories of that early romance came flooding back with tragic effect.

Irina Lungu is another fairly new voice at the Met, having made her debut last fall in the revival of Rigoletto. Here, the soprano played Musetta as a potent, saucy presence, making the most of her Act II Waltz and knowing that this role can launch singers into stardom. The spectacular stage effect of a hundred-plus supernumeraries stopping to listen never fails to focus the Met audience, and this was a funny, well-acted rendition of the showpiece that entranced the house. In the later acts, Ms. Lungu also caught the flip-side of this character, underlining her serious nature and delivering a moving prayer in the final scene.

With two young sopranos in the cast, it makes good sense to have a veteran leading man. The current revival (seen Wednesday night) boasts Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and his Rodolfo (last seen here in 2010) makes a welcome return. Mr. Calleja's cheerful stage presence, made for an exciting evening, reminding these ears of early José Carreras with his sweet notes and sustained vocal lines.

His earthy, naturalistic approach to the role was easy on the ears, and a sweetly delivered "Che gelida manina" opened the doors to romance. But it was the little touches, the mark of experience in this role that added extra dimension to Rodolfo. The easy repartee with his fellow Bohemians in Acts I and IV, the desparation of the confrontation with Mimì in Act III, and the moment, as his beloved lay dying, when Mr. Calleja stopped in a corner of the little attic to silently pray--all of these moved the viewer and contributed to a strong performance.

Alexey Markov remains a reliable, somewhat bluff Marcello. His voice is dark and not exactly sweet, but he knows the character inside and out, demonstrates good chemistry with Mr. Calleja and Ms. Lungu and sang with taste and style. Christian Van Horn, carried over from the new production of Falstaff is a light bass, but an effective, grave Colline. The "Coat Song") ("Vecchio zimarra") was a highlight of the last act. Robert Maxwell is adequate as Benoit and Alcindoro, but Paul Plishka is missed.

Mr. Ranzani never rushed through the beauties of the score, drawing detail and vitality from this well-seasoned orchestra. This was most apparent in the famous Act I duet, from Mimì's entrance to the last cries of "Amor...amor" that faded magically to silence.. The middle acts had their joys too, with the bright, sparkling percussion that announces the entrance of the toy-seller and the muted orchestral colors of Paris at dawn in a snow-storm. In the final act, as Puccini brought his themes back for one last nostalgic walk-through, Mr. Ranzani reprised them with a sense of dramatic urgency, making the listener hear the ticking clock that counts out the last minutes of Mimì's life. Impressive stuff.
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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.