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Monday, February 19, 2018

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La bohème

Death, romance and the rooftops of Paris in Puccini's timeless opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sonya Yoncheva, having survived her death-drop from the Castel Sant'Angelo, is Mîmi.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
The star of this year's Tosca, soprano Sonya Yoncheva, is Mimi in this winter revival of La bohème.  Metropolitan Opera markets Puccini's fourth opera as "the most popular opera of all time." That may be debatable, but the show returns this year in Franco Zefirelli's elaborate and constantly rehabilitated production.

What is La bohème?
This is an opera that has inspired romance, marriages, Moonstruck and the hit Broadway musical Rent. It was Puccini's first monster hit: a four-act deep dive into the lives of four artist friends and their tragedies, triumphs and tribulations living in Paris in the winter. It is a tragedy with comic elements and a healthy dose of doomed romance, and has been a success since its first performances.

What's La bohème about?
Four friends, a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician live in an attic apartment in Paris. The poet, Rodolfo falls in love with a seamstress, Mimi. Meanwhile, Marcello pursues an on-again-off-again relationship with the beautiful, fickle Musetta, a singer. In the last act, Mimi dies of tuberculosis.

What's the music like?
Everyone knows the story of this opera, and yet it is the music that remains its chief glory. In the first act, when Mimi enters, Puccini has tenor and soprano unleash a veritable flood-tide of memorable melodies that will stay with you all the way through the evening. These themes all come back in the final act, in a sad, minor-key form as Mimi meets her tragic fate.

Who's in it?
Sonya Yoncheva (who opened Tosca on New Year's Eve) sings Mimi, opposite the shiny Michael Fabiano. Marco Armiliato does the conducting duties.

How's the production?
This is the biggest, most lavish and most elaborate show in the Met repertory and one of only two productions left designed by the legendary Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. A life-sized replica of Paris' Latin Quarter is the most memorable set (seen in Act II) but throughout you will see picture-postcard views of the City of Lights in all of its varied seasons.

Why should I see it?
Three reasons: you've never been to the opera before, you love Puccini's magnificent score and want to hear it artfully sung, you are on a spectacular date with someone you love or at least feel strongly about.

When does it open?
La bohème returns to the Met October 2nd for a run of performances through mid-November. The second cast takes the stage February 16, making this the perfect opera night for a late Valentine's Day.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
Yes! Feb. 24 at 12:30pm EST.

Which recording should I get?

This is one of the most frequently recorded operas but there's never been an improvement on these two classic recordings:

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. Almost unbeatable.

Orchestra e Coro de St. Cecillia di Roma cond. Tullio Serafin (Decca, 1959)
Rodolfo: Carlo Bergonzi
Mimi: Renata Tebaldi
Marcello: Ettore Bastianini
Almost. 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.

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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.