It’s the boys’ night to shine in Met’s beloved Bohème

Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm
Joseph Calleja and Maija Kovalveska in Puccini's "La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Joseph Calleja and Maija Kovalevska in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic production of La Bohème still soldiers on after more than thirty years, returning to the Met on Tuesday night. It is in fact one of only two Zeffirelli stagings still in the Met’s active repertory (the other being Turandot), but it is “Zeffirelli” enough to make up for all the rest.

This is of course not the edgy sort of staging we’ve come to expect from the Met in recent years, but there is nothing stale or stodgy about it. Relentlessly vivid, the garret of the first and fourth acts evokes the “romantic” squalor of the nineteenth-century artist (something with which the Bushwick crowd might sympathize), and the second act, with its bustling portrayal of a Paris street, is a classic feat of operatic spectacle.

There were no real marquee names among a cast of young principals, but that of course doesn’t rule out first-rate singing. On Tuesday it was the leading men who lit up the stage.

As the hapless poet Rodolfo, Joseph Calleja was in fine form from the outset. The Maltese tenor is blessed with the kind of voice that can fill a barn like the Met with relative ease while retaining astonishing focus in his tone. His “Che gelida manina” was exemplary, displaying ringing caramel tone infused with ardent intensity. He soared to his top notes without a hint of trouble, and his phrasing was finely crafted all the way through.

His best work, though, came in the third act, when confronted by Marcello (Alexey Markov) for his jealous treatment of Mimì. When he finally came clean with his concerns about her health, he sang with passionate grief, clearly torn between his desire to stay with her and his desire to see her pursue a better life. The confrontation between the two men, with Marcello trying to wrest the truth from his friend, was one of the evening’s highlights.

In fact, any time the two of them were together, it was a highlight. They played off of each other extraordinarily well, so much so that their friendship superseded the two romantic entanglements as the opera’s most convincing relationship. There was some amount of mischievous joy in watching them needle each other at the top of act four, claiming to have spotted each other’s girlfriends with rich older men. The poignant duet that followed (“O Mimì, tu più non torni”) was a sensational collaboration, Calleja’s silk melding perfectly with Markov’s smooth, chocolate sound. Like Calleja, Markov has a big voice that projects easily into the house without even the slightest blemish.

The women gave serviceable performances, but proved less inspired. As the unfortunate Mimì, Maija Kovalevska did her best work of the evening in the fourth act, where we could hear a heroic struggle against the exhaustion that would finally claim her. Sadly, the effect was diminished by a flat performance in the earlier acts, where she showed little strength or conviction. We did not get to see a gradual dimming of her flame, as she was rather waifish to begin with. Her relationship with Rodolfo lacked spark, and she displayed little urgency when she initially bid him farewell in the third act. Vocally, she was mostly solid (apart from a flat final note as she descended the stairs with her lover to end act one), but her tone was wispy—a character choice, perhaps, but one that did not help her to establish a strong musical presence.

Irina Lungu was an especially sultry Musetta, singing with dark-hued tone and a slightly wide vibrato that kept her from having the sort of sparkling charm that a lighter Musetta can bring. She was entirely convincing dramatically, finding a particularly poignant moment in the fourth act in her moving prayer as Mimì lay dying.

Musetta’s waltz in the second act, “Quando m’en vo,” can be a highlight, as she tries to win back the affections of Marcello. Lungu did her bit, but got little help from Stefano Ranzani in the pit, as ensemble and balancing started to come apart towards the song’s end. It was not the conductor’s only frustrating moment, as for the first two acts he struggled to hold everything together and failed to get much lusciousness out of the orchestra, allowing the brass to dominate. Things cleaned up considerably in the third act, and by the end of the fourth the pit was doing some wonderful work, including an exceptionally lively account of the roommates’ dance-turned-duel.

The role of Schaunard occasionally felt a little low for Joshua Hopkins, but for the most part he sang with warmth and spirit. Christian Van Horn brought a gruff, almost buffo sound to the philosopher Colline, yet he gave a heart-wrenching account of his aria “Vecchia zimarra,” his earnest farewell to his trusty overcoat. He was sometimes difficult to hear, though not so difficult as Donald Maxwell, who was mousy as both the landlord Benoit and the philandering councilor Alcindoro.

La Bohème runs through April 18 with Anita Hartig, Vittorio Grigolo, Jennifer Rowley and Massimo Cavalletti in the principal roles beginning  March 19.

Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion

2 Responses to “It’s the boys’ night to shine in Met’s beloved Bohème”

  1. Posted Jan 17, 2014 at 3:16 am by RK

    No real marquee names? Really? Boheme will always hold a place dear to my heart, but I had my fill of this production some 20 years ago, and the Met hasn’t presented a cast to lure me back.

    Until now. I’d go anywhere to hear Joseph Calleja, a vocal superstar if ever there was one. Did you hear his Edgardo in Lucia some seasons back? When he fell to his knees and sang his final aria, some divine magic transfixed the house, and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom Luciano Pavarotti sprang to mind.

    No, his voice is not the same. But he commanded the stage, entreated us to listen, and intoxicated with his plangent, lyric voice, spinning out Donizetti’s bel canto phrases while bearing testimony to his inner soul. Not magic, really, but what we long for in the theater, and in art. Through the greatest art comes the simplest, most direct path to the human soul. Funny, how hard it is to achieve that.

  2. Posted Jan 22, 2014 at 11:12 pm by Joseph Lanzon

    I totally agree- Joseph Calleja gave an amazing performance. What a beautiful rendition of Rodolfo.

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