Strong new cast gives fresh life to Met’s popular “Boheme”

Thu Jan 07, 2016 at 1:34 pm
Maria Agresta and Bryan Hymel in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's "La Boheme." Photo: Ken Howard

Maria Agresta and Bryan Hymel in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Photo: Ken Howard

La Bohème is by far the most frequently performed work in the Metropolitan Opera’s history, and the company gave its 1,281st performance of Puccini’s romantic tragedy Wednesday night. Since 1981, Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic staging has provided the vehicle, itself presented more than four hundred times at the house and on tour.

Those of us who have seen it frequently may from time to time roll our eyes at the unabashed spectacle and occasional goofiness of the Zeffirelli production, but there’s a reason, aside from sheer pageantry, that it remains one of the most cherished items in the Met’s repertory. For all its size, among the staging’s chief virtues is its sensitivity to the dramatic demands of each moment. The second act, of course, elicits grins and gasps with its parade of sight after sight: a horse-drawn carriage, a dancing bear, an entire rifle company together create an irresistible feeling of excited activity. By contrast, the third act (once the initial awe of the snowstorm wears off) focuses the energy of the scene and creates a series of arrestingly intimate encounters.

Of course, the drama of the setting is most effective when populated by actors willing to inhabit it with complete sincerity, such as the compelling cast that opened this season’s second run of the opera on Wednesday night. The chemistry on stage was a joy to watch, especially among the four roommates, whose antics lent human warmth to their drafty garret.

Bryan Hymel’s voice is wonderfully suited to the role of the romantic playwright Rodolfo, consistently bright, and clear and ringing in its upper reaches. Quinn Kelsey brought a richly colored, full-bodied, woolly voice to the role of Marcello, as well as the painter’s perfect melancholy temperament. David Pershall gave a strong showing as Schaunard, and Kihwan Sim made a superb debut as Colline. He has a voice of both power and color, with impressive muscle but still enough control to give a simply sung, keenly felt account of the “Vecchia zimarra” arietta.

The high-profile debut of the evening was that of Maria Agresta, starring as Mimì. Her voice is a little on the darker side of the lyric spectrum, and early on she seemed to have a little too much power to convey the youth and fragility of the role. By the latter half of the opera, though, she had found an entirely different vocal characterization, singing her Act III duets with Marcello and Rodolfo with gentle pleading, and giving her dying lines in an aching whisper.

Susanna Phillips revisited Musetta, the role with which she made her company debut, and one that she has song dozens of times since. She is completely at home in it by this point, of course, playing the diva with irrepressible glee in the middle two acts but finding the necessary maturity of spirit for act four. Phillips is an intelligent musician, and sang her headline aria, “Quando m’en vo,” with impressive subtlety, but she showed hints of the technical problems that have bothered her recently, as in last month’s Fledermaus: a worrying rough-edged grain in her tone, a sense of insecurity on her top notes, and moments of breathlessness. Hers is still a promising young career, so let’s hope this is something that will right itself quickly.

Conductor Dan Ettinger proved a capable facilitator, and more: he led a tight performance and drew first-rate work out of the Met’s orchestra and chorus. His exceptional attention to the details of the score gave impressive shape to the dramatic character of the piece, notably as he took extra time to eke out the pathos of the closing bars.

The marvelous John Del Carlo, a quintessential character bass, continues his reign as the opera’s two leches, Benoit and Alcindoro. Will he still be singing those roles in this production, years down the road? That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

La Bohème runs through May 5 at the Metropolitan Opera. Beginning April 15, the roles of Musetta, Colline, and Schaunard will be played by Ailyn Pérez, Robert Tagliavini, and Alessio Arduini. metopera.org.


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