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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La bohème

The timeless and much-repaired Zeffirelli production is back for three runs.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Upper West Side real estate. Sleeps four. Act I of La bohème.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

To its credit, the Metropolitan Opera is pretty good about stocking its frequent revivals of La Bohème with solid casts of singers who do a wonderful job with Puccini's too-familiar score. This year's revival features three seperate casts, with Rámon Vargas and Bryan Hymel each taking on the role of the ardent poet Rodolfo who falls head-over-notebook for the seamstress Mímí in belle epoque Paris.

But let's face it. The real reason people flock to this Bohème and the reason the Met rolls it out almost every year is its drawing power as a spectacle opera, taking the tiny intimate story of four friends slowly freezing to death in a tiny garret apartment and setting it against a gigantic backdrop of Paris itself.

All this Zeffirellian set-dressing (the split level Latin Quarter set is kept in New Jersey and the annual restoration work is split between three separate Metropolitan Opera woodworking shops)  culminates in an Act Two sequence where over 200 extras, 50+ choristers and a no-foolin' marching band recreate the frenzy of the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve, which still ranks as one of the most stunning (if overstuffed) spectacles that this company can put upon its gigantic stage.

This year's cast features strong supporting players, with Ana Maria Martinez, Susanna Philips and Ailyn Pérez each taking on the role of Musetta, and a succession of sopranos (Maria Argesta, Hei-Kyung Hong and the ever-popular Teresa Belladonna Agosto (that's "T.B.A.") dying of consumption at center stage. You think with all those sets and props they'd be able to at least keep the poor girl warm.

La Bohème returns to the Met on Nov. 23 with further revivals starting Jan. 9 and April 15, 2016. 

Recording Recommendations:
RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra cond. Sir Thomas Beecham (WBC, 1953)
Rodolfo: Jussi Björling
Mimi: Victoria de los Angeles
Marcello: Robert Merrill
Made at the Manhattan Center Studios on W. 34th St. in New York, this is the classic mono recording of Puccini's opera. Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles are an ardent pair of lovers. Robert Merrill is a marvelous, characterful Marcello. A classic.

Orchestra e Coro de St. Cecillia di Roma cond. Tullio Serafin (Decca, 1959)
Rodolfo: Carlo Bergonzi
Mimi: Renata Tebaldi
Marcello: Ettore Bastianini
Veteran opera conductor Tullio Serafin leads this fine early stereo recording. Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi lead a solid cast as the young lovers. The great Ettore Bastianini is Marcello. The cast is filled out with great singers from this era, including Fernando Corena, Cesare Siepi and Piero da Palma.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Decca, 1973)
Rodolfo: Luciano Pavarotti
Mimi: Mirella Freni
Marcello: Rolando Panerai
For Pavarotti lovers, this is one of his great recordings, pairing the Italian tenor with his frequent collaborators, soprano Mirella Freni and conductor Herbert von Karajan. This performance is a little slower, with the German orchestra playing with a slightly heavy touch, but it remains competitive.

Tickets for La bohéme are available at MetOpera.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.

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