A soprano’s affecting debut highlights Met’s big-voiced “Bohème”

Tue Oct 03, 2017 at 12:46 pm
Angel Blue and Dmytro Popov in Puccini's "La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Angel Blue and Dmytro Popov in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

A constant presence at the Metropolitan Opera since 1981, the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Bohème is about as reliable a contraption as exists on any stage. Plug in the right singers, turn the crank, and out comes a fine evening of opera—and occasionally more.

Puccini’s Parisian chestnut had a strong season premiere Monday night, opening the first of two Met runs this season. The story of the evening, no question, was the excellent company debut of Angel Blue as Mimì, a role that has served as a memorable introduction for many sopranos.

Blue’s voice is full and colorful, if a little temperamental—the lowest stretches of the part felt like a reach for the American soprano, and in her middle range her vibrato grew uncomfortably pronounced. Yet the higher she climbed, the more she revealed a bright, spacious instrument, meaning that the crucial elements of the role—the soaring contours, the sustained high notes—positively bloomed. She matched that luscious singing with a compelling dramatic take: Blue’s Mimì was an especially shy one, giving her a fragility that made her romantic aspirations inherently tragic.

The voices of the four garret-dwelling romantics were all on the heftier side of their roles, making the evening a particularly resonant one. Dmytro Popov’s tenor is a forceful instrument, so robust that his ability to navigate the part seemed miraculous. Navigate it he did, giving a vocal performance of ringing power that necessitated a brilliantly passionate portrayal to match. He gave a resounding rendition of “Che gelida manina,” and from then on there was no reining him in.

Lucas Meachem sang the dashing Marcello with a roaring, grainy baritone that could as easily have suited a Scarpia. The star of Act III, he showed himself to be alternately tender and forceful in his duets with Mimì and Rodolfo. Bass David Soar gave an affecting performance as Colline, bringing a rich, earthy tone to the role and giving a simple but moving account of his melancholy Act IV aria, “Vecchia zimarra.” Baritone Duncan Rock showed the brightest voice of the three supporting men, offering a lively portrait of the musician Schaunard.

Brigitta Kele has so far sung Musetta and nothing else at the Met; Monday marked the start of her third pass in the role, in which she has performed admirably since her 2016 debut. Her voice isn’t quite ideal for the part—Musetta wants a truly voluptuous lyric voice, whereas Kele’s can have a hard edge. In Monday’s premiere that edge was especially prominent, casting a slight shadow on her vocal performance. She was dramatically convincing in the role nonetheless, particularly in her moving prayer for the dying Mimì in Act IV.

The venerable Paul Plishka, still enjoying semi-retirement, was a comic gem as the lascivious landlord Benoît, though as Musetta’s patron Alcindoro he was next to inaudible.

The third debut of the evening was Alexander Soddy, taking command in the pit for the first time. This was a promising first outing, though not without its shortcomings: in a few spots in the second act the ensemble started to loosen at the seams, and he compensated by letting the music drag–which is deadly in a scene that moves so quickly from one idea to the next. Still, the details of the score were richly rendered in Monday’s performance, as Soddy brought out gorgeous textures and brilliant flourishes from the Met Orchestra.

As so often in these Met Bohèmes, the Zeffirelli staging provides a strong glue for the performance, giving the audience a compelling story even without much star power. Under the direction of Gregory Keller, the action onstage was free of affectation, allowing room for the romances of the two couples and the playful antics of the four roommates to show the humanity of the opera. It may not be trendy, but as long as this classic production can so directly access the heart of the piece, it’s a worthy fixture of the Met’s rotation.

La Bohème runs through March 10 at the Metropolitan Opera. Anita Hartig appears as Mimì on November 1 and 4. Jean-François Borras appears as Rodolfo on October 14, and Russell Thomas takes over the role beginning October 19. A second cast, conducted by Marco Armiliato and starring Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano, opens on February 16. metopera.org

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